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A roast-chicken requiem for a fractured nation

While food is often a point of divisiveness across this chaotic nation, it is also a locus of contact between its diverse cultures

Roast chicken with walnut-bread stuffing (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)
Roast chicken with walnut-bread stuffing (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

There were no Christians at our Christmas dinner, only Hindus and Muslims.

With the threat of Covid looming large again, most of our Christian friends had opted for quiet family celebrations. But Christmas was so much a part of our lives that we felt we had to at least have a small get-together, especially to keep alive the idea of an India that all of us had grown up with.

As we regretted the dark turn our country had taken, one of our Muslim friends—whose middle name is Kumar—explained how he went to a school where he studied the Bhagavad Gita and knew it better than many Hindus. I recalled how I was never asked to even read a Bible during my school life—which except for five years was spent largely in Christian institutions—where teachers came from a variety of backgrounds and my classmates were from families of local grocery owners and autorickshaw drivers.

As I have often written, our child has grown up in a neighbourhood that celebrates, both in personal and public spaces, its diverse religious cultures. We value and treasure the invaluable life lessons she—and we—receive from Richards Town. This does not mean that we are free of bigots, just that they are well hidden in a landscape adorned with shared values, tolerance and the ties that bind. When you live together, you learn acceptance and adjustment more easily—sometimes, there is no choice.

I remember how a Muslim friend from Bihar stared at the Christian-run cold storage advertising its pork bellies and sausages a stone’s throw from the local mosque; how beef fry was freely advertised (it’s still available but not as freely advertised) by restaurants near a temple and everyone bore with patience the annual clamorous Christian procession and the heaving, noisy food street of Ramzan.

Indeed, while food is often a point of divisiveness across this maddening nation, it is also a locus of contact between its diverse cultures. That is how some Marwari classmates at college snuck off to eat khuskha or ghee rice and chicken curry at lunch time; some Muslims were brave enough to eat pandhi or pork curry; and some Hindus gobbled up beef chilly fry with parotta. The Christians, of course, ate everything.

Food was my entry point into the myriad cultures of the northeast, each offering a smorgasbord of options and revealing to me how these choices defined the people who cooked that food. It was by first eating Naga food that I sought to know more about its diversity and the people who cooked it, as it was with Manipuri food, which can be as diverse as the subcontinent itself.

Growing up, our entry into Hyderabadi Muslim, Gowda Hindu and Mangalorean Christian culture was made possible by close friends. Since I am writing this column at Christmas time, I cannot help but remember by parents’ friends who always invited us to a Christmas feast where the lights were dimmed, and a rum-soaked cake set alight, its wavering blue flame always alight in my memories.

I remember Fifine aunty, Josephine Sequeira, because my love for sannas—those fluffy idli-like rice cakes made with fermented rice batter—comes from her home, as does my penchant to add liberal quantities of rum to my meats. That is what I did at the Christmas dinner this year, liberally dousing my roast chicken in Old Monk.

Roast chicken, roast turkey, vegetables in coconut milk and my mother’s prawn pulao made up for the absence of our Christmas tree, which we had to take down after the cat decided to wage a relentless, personal battle against its shiny baubles and plastic branches.

It wasn’t intentional but I realized the dinner menu reflected our syncretic culinary backgrounds. The roast turkey came from outside, a whisper of our colonial past and continuing, modern global engagement. The vegetables and prawn pulao reflected my family’s Konkan traditions, and the roast chicken was just a happy mélange of my travels and experiences with cultures as far away as the Maghrib.

On that balmy, Bengaluru evening, our little moment appeared far removed from our grim national realities and offered hope that what was once, still is and—with effort from all of us—could still be.

Roast chicken with walnut-bread stuffing

1 whole chicken with skin
2 tsp sumac
2 tsp za’atar
(if either or both of the two spices are not available, use a mild chilli powder and cumin powder)
1 tsp five-spice powder
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
2 tbsp rum
Salt to taste
Slash the chicken skin and marinate with all the ingredients above. Set aside for 4-5 hours after wrapping in foil.

For the stuffing:

2 slices of bread, roughly chopped
2 tbsp walnuts
1 sprig of rosemary
2 tsp softened butter

Mix the stuffing and pack into the chicken. Pull the skin over to cover and use two toothpicks to secure.

Preheat oven to 150 deg C. Place chicken in tray and roast in foil for 2 hrs. Collect liquid that flows out during this time. Open the foil and increase heat to 200-220 deg C and roast for 45 minutes, basting every 10 minutes, until it turns golden but making sure it does not burn. Stick a knife in deep—if it comes out clean, your chicken is cooked.

Remove and use a knife and fork to carve. The meat should come cleanly off the bone.

Serves: 6

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11

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