Taste of Life: Including local flavors in the Christmas menu

In 1872, a small European congregation gathered to celebrate Christmas in Junnar, a village near Poona. The men were soldiers and government officers posted in the village. Their wives and children had joined them for the celebrations. Hymns were sung and gifts were exchanged. Dinner was served on the “patravali”, dishes made by stitching together sal leaves. The menu consisted of rice, curry, “boondi” (deep-fried chickpea flour pearls dipped in sugar syrup), and pakoras.

Europeans living in India missed the Christmas celebrations back home. Until the 1860s, they had tried their best to enjoy the festivals by incorporating local foods into the Christmas menu. The dinners on Christmas Eve would comprise local dishes like Puran Poli, boondi, jalebi, shev, and various chicken, lamb, and beef curries. With the opening of the Suez Canal and the importation of ice, European meat and sweets became readily available in India and swiftly replaced the local delicacies from the Christmas menu.

Christmas dinner used to be a grand affair at various institutions in Poona in the late nineteenth century. In the Poona and Kirkee cantonments, dinners would be hosted for the soldiers and other inmates. Porchways of barracks and offices would be decorated with palm leaves, festoons of flowers, and bunches of blossoms. The meal provided to the soldiers and officers left nothing to be desired. Soup, fowls, ham, ducks, sirloin beef, saddle mutton, and suckling pig would be done justice to, with the aid of bottled beer, a glass of brandy, and aerated waters. Plum puddings, Christmas cakes, and fruit followed; and each man would be provided with a plug of tobacco and a long clay pipe. Several toasts would be drunk in a hearty manner.

The annual “Christmas Treat” for the children attending missionary schools would be held early in January. Cakes, fruits, crackers, puddings, and pies would comprise the menu. Toys and other gifts would be distributed. Some wealthy Christian and Parsi families would send gifts for the children every year.

St Edward’s Boys’ School and St Hilda’s Girls School the buildings were often used for social gatherings, wedding breakfasts, and Christmas plays, both religious and secular. The school premises were often the venues for large Christmas parties.

Even while December would bring cool winds to Poona, it was not very easy for the European mind to bring itself to recognize the fact that the Christmas season had once more come around. Any lingering doubt on the point could be dispelled by a visit to the various business establishments in the Cantonment area, the tradesmen having made ample provision for the abnormal demands being made upon them.

The “Christmas stores” would stock “a choice and extensive selection” of Christmas decorations, fine and well-preserved Christmas fruits, sweets like abricotines (apricot almond cookies), pralines, chocolates, and Christmas cards and toys. Christmas cakes, plum puddings, and mince pies would also be sold. Many of these stores did not have branches in Poona. They would rent premises in the Cantonment area and would be operational only during the Christmas season.

The shops would present a bright and picturesque appearance. The spacious and handsome warehouses would be replenished with fancy ornamental and useful articles. The jewelers added to their always magnificent stock; The stationers and fancy dealers made a glorious show of Christmas and New Year’s cards, a large assortment of toys, dolls, electroplated ware, crackers, decoration, fancy boxes, baskets, hampers, etc.

Messrs Treacher & Co, their store being near East Street, would stock a simply bewildering display of fruits, crystallised and fresh, nuts, chocolates in the most tempting confections, biscuits, and cakes manufactured by Messrs Peek Frean & Co, and Messrs Huntley & Palmer. A large stock of special blends of the best Scotch and Irish whiskies would be laid in their shop. It was believed that the blend of such brands as ‘Glenlivet and Old Irish’ was unqualified in India.

Messrs Marks & Co Ltd were known for their imported cold cuts of meat. Messrs Kemp & Co Ltd were known for their tobacco and pipes. In the early 1880s, the firm had set up a new aerated water plant in Bombay which was said to have “revolutionised” the trade. Their aerated water products had gained quick popularity in Poona, more so because they would only be available around Christmas. Messrs Bull & Co were famous for their bran pies. Orders would be booked a few months in advance and were delivered from a shop near St Patrick’s Church.

Felice Cornaglia, the first Italian confectioner in Poona, would stock a large assortment of cakes of every size, and decorate them in any style required without extra charge. His fancy confectionery, consisting of imitation of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, most artistically made in fondants, almond paste, sweets etc. had only to be seen by the youngsters to make their mouths water.

Fancy chocolate cream, nougat, and vanilla would be put up in tablets of various sizes and of exceptional quality. Cornaglia stocked hand-painted fancy boxes for chocolates and sweets. Fancy Florence baskets were also available for Christmas gifts.

Modern electroplating plants were established in Hamburg in the late 1870s. Utensils made there would travel to Poona in time for Christmas. Available in stores were claret jugs, beer jugs, tea kettles, cruet frames, butter dishes, ice pails, tea and coffee sets, dishes of various kinds, ice and sardines tongs, crumb scoops, goblets, epergnes, and centrepieces. These would usually be bought as gifts.

Government officers would often send Christmas cards and dinner invitations to Indian leaders, politicians, businessmen, and other men of influence. The intention was to create a cordial relationship and a reminder that Christmas belonged to no one nation alone, nor to one tongue, nor to one latitude or longitude, nor to one color or creed; it was the one day of all the days in the year when all the world over the high festival was held.

By the early twentieth century, a handful of (wealthy) Hindu men had started welcoming Christian priests into their houses and shops and would speak freely on religious matters. Such openings were rare in the nineteenth century. The children were accessible, and there was a clamor for the old Christmas cards, which some had found a useful agency for breaking the ice and bringing people into touch. Not only children, but people of all ages and ranks came and asked for pictures, and these had been the first beginning of many fruitful friendships.

Here is a recipe from the Anglo-Indian Cookbook written by Constance Gordon in 1913. She would bake this cake while living in Poona.

Christmas plum cake – ½ lb of butter, ½ lb of castor sugar, ½ b of sultanas, ½ lb of currants, ¼ oz of mixed candied peel, 1 lb of prepared flour (could be obtained from any European store), 10 eggs, and milk.

Dry the flour on a sheet of white paper, put the butter and sugar into a mixing dish, and put it in front of the fire until it is quite soft. Clean the fruit, dry it carefully and cut the peel into thin threads; lay the fruit on the paper with the flour. Then beat up the sugar and butter into a cream by hand, and break in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each egg. When all are in, add the flour, fruit and milk until it is the consistency of cream, and bake in square tins lined with buttered paper.


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