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Christmas 2022: A feast far away from home

How expat chefs recreate Christmas memories through family recipes and food traditions while creating new ones

Christmas specials from Monique Patisserie, Delhi.

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The conversation comes alive with Guto Souza’s crackling laughter. The Brazilian chef is in New Zealand, making butter chicken for his family. “I have perfected this dish, can you believe it?” he says. The executive chef and partner of the Brazilian restaurant Boteco, with branches in Pune and Bengaluru, travels between India and New Zealand to balance work and family. He has been in India for 11 years, and his daughter, now 16, developed a taste for Indian dishes. She wants paratha and butter chicken instead of roast turkey for Christmas. Along with these, he fries pakoras, bakes a traditional Brazilian suckling pig and serves flan (pudim de leite condensado) for dessert.

Souza’s family Christmas menu reflects what most expat chefs in India do—meld two different cultures through food. The celebrations begin a few days before the festival and continue into the first week of the New Year. It’s a time to be with family, make lots of food to share with loved ones or recreate Christmas traditions with new neighbours, friends and colleagues. Roasts are common to most, whether they come from Peru, France or Ethiopia. While the plum cake—synonymous with Christmas for Indians—doesn’t appeal to all, some of them include traditional Christmas dishes on their restaurant menus for a limited period.

The French yule log, la bûche de Noël, kicks off Christmas celebrations in France. It’s brought home on the eve of the coldest day of the year, the winter solstice. The French light a log of wood and allow it to slowly burn through the night on 21 December. The bûche represents the log of wood and embodies this tradition, says chef Maxime Montay of the Monique Patisserie in Delhi. The patisserie’s Christmas menu has a selection of bûche in flavours like vanilla, chocolate and coconut. A simple homemade bûche would be a no-bake recipe containing powdered biscuits rolled with cream. “The bûche is the star of Christmas desserts,” says Montay. There are many signature sweets associated with the season.

Chef Manuel Olveira talks about the Spanish turron, a nougat-like sweet with almonds, honey and sugar that comes in hard and soft versions. “When you have turron, you know it’s Christmas time,” he says. The owner of the Spanish restaurant La Loca Maria in Mumbai has spent a decade here. While he makes the sweet from scratch, he brings cheeses and cured meats from Spain. Baked dishes are a must. He prepares a Lamb Wellington, lamb tenderloin mixed with mushrooms, sourdough crumbs and truffle, wrapped in puff pastry sheets and then baked. It’s served with raspberry jus, roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts.

Bengaluru-based home chef Deborah Naa Darkua Afua First-Quao posted about Dutch stroopwafel on her Instagram page @firstserves. A dainty edible house designed with icing is crafted with pieces of Dutch waffles (thin waffles filled with caramel). Then it is placed atop a teacup to warm it up and served. It is a Christmas tea tradition that she learnt when she lived in Holland. Her festive food has imbibed the influences of the many countries she has lived in, growing up in Ghana and Ethiopia, completing high school in New York, pursuing higher education in Paris, living in Holland and now in Bengaluru. “My husband is French and our Christmas menu is usually French,” she says. There’s a cheese platter, foie gras and a classic duck rillet with slow-cooked shredded meat pieces.

Dutch stroopwafel by Deborah Naa Darkua Afua First-Quao.
Dutch stroopwafel by Deborah Naa Darkua Afua First-Quao.

In her family, the celebrations extend to January. “Ethiopians are Orthodox and one of the few countries that follow the Gregorian calendar. For Ethiopians, Christmas falls on 7 January. I usually make injera (fermented sourdough flatbread), doro wot (chicken stew) and serve with vegetarian sides dishes,” she says. In Bengaluru, she started a tradition of making gingerbread houses with her neighbours and selling them to raise funds.

While most expat chefs have infused Christmas cooking with ingredients and dishes from India, there are those who will be celebrating it here for the first time. Peruvian chef Kinyo Rodas Tristan, who heads the kitchen in the restaurant Koishii at St Regis Mumbai, moved to India in January. Back home, roasted turkey and baked suckling pig are the centrepieces of the festive table on Christmas Eve, says Tristan. “There’s a side dish of colourful dried fruit salad bursting with flavour,” he says. To recreate memories of food from home, he will prepare a family recipe of Christmas pudding and serve with spiced wine.

Drinks are integral to celebrations but not everyone has mulled wines at home. Olveira’s family in Spain makes liqueurs in flavours like coffee, blackberry and cherry. When he tried to recreate these in India, he failed because the base spirit is different. At his home in Toledo, they make the liqueurs with a high alcoholic spirit that’s extracted from leftover grapes in wineries. These liqueurs are like digestifs, meant to be had after long, elaborate meals.

“In France, mulled wine is considered an outdoor drink. It’s something people buy in Christmas markets,” says Montay. At their home in France, they serve champagne or a dry white wine with oyster, smoked salmon and escargot. Champagne, he says, pairs well with oysters. When they move to foie gras and red meats, they pick full-bodied red wines. To recreate the wine-and-food experience from home, the chef is organising a multi-course dinner experience for friends. He shares the elaborate menu, which features four types of canapés, savoury choux with salmon and truffle orangettes. There’s wine from Burgundy and Bordeaux, and Rosé champagne. “At home in France, we keep an empty seat at the Christmas dinner and make some extra food. It’s meant for someone who may not be able to afford food. Nobody should go hungry on Christmas Eve.”

Nearly every chef’s memories of Christmas are tinged with nostalgia. Tristan confesses he will miss his family “very much”. After all, on Christmas, the food is like a side dish—the family is the centrepiece.

CHRISTMAS MENUS BY EXPAT CHEFS

MONIQUE PATISSERIE, DELHI
MUST-TRY: ‘La bûche de Noël’, Cookie box and ‘Le Pain de Gênes’ (almond marzipan bread).

BOTECO, BENGALURU AND PUNE
MUST-TRY: Home-cured Christmas ham, Beef Wellington and Christmas pudding with Cointreau sauce.

LA LOCA MARIA, MUMBAI
MUST-TRY: ‘Gambas tigre pochadas’ (tiger prawns, carrot purée and persimmon) and spiced

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