The Goan consoada tray Photo: Joanna Lobo
Our Christmas begins with Advent, a four-week preparation to welcome the birth of Christ. Inwardly, it meant confessing our sins, seeking pardon, and preparing our hearts to accept the newborn. On the outside, it was a different story: find the latest patterns and a tailor to stitch a new dress, dust out the decorations, put up the Christmas tree, source hay and sand for the crib. The whole house underwent a deep clean. But the most amount of time was devoted to sweets.
Goan Catholic communities borrowed the tradition of consoada, the ritual of making sweets for Christmas from the Portuguese. Over time, it came to be known as kuswar. Each year, the consoada tray is proof of the cooking skills of the household. It’s offered to visitors, sent to the homes of families in mourning (since they do not prepare festive sweets), non-Catholic neighbours and friends.
I grew up in a joint family led by women, who were all good cooks. My grandaunt Tia Micas would lead the charge for Christmas sweets; my grandmother or Mae (now 112) handled the food. Preparing Christmas sweets was a family exercise. Our dining table bore witness to evenings spent using combs and forks to roll out kulkuls into perfect curls. Us kids were warned from sneaking handfuls of the crunchy deep-fried sweet, as addictive as any potato chip. The floor was papered down for neuris, crescent-moon shaped pastries with a sweet coconut filling. The prep involved rolling out the dough and stuffing it with a sweet coconut and dried fruit mixture. The marble table in another room would be cleaned to allow for the cooling of the doce, the chana dal (chickpeas), coconut and sugar mixture, before it could be cut into diamonds. Firewood would be stacked in the kitchen for dodol. Tia Micas’ speciality was gons, spiderwebs of tender coconut cooked in sugar syrup till they formed a crust. Her version would be translucent, unlike the overly-sweet options available today. They were a testament to her precision. My mother would make what would become her speciality, nankhatai (maida cookies) and the petal-shaped kormolas (deep-fried crumbly sweets). On my family table, there is also fruit cake, bolinhas (coconut cookies with cardamom) and bebinca, as well as the more recent additions of store-bought marzipans and sugar-crusted jujubes.
A feast for the senses
On our return from midnight Mass on the morning of the 25th, we would wake Mae up to place the baby Jesus statue in our crib. It would herald the beginning of our Christmas festivities. After that, we could stuff our faces and wash it all down with coffee.
Christmas Day always passes in a blur of food. Lunch is a feast, filled with protein. Sorpotel is always made a few days before and allowed to ‘pickle’, along with peas pulao studded with chicken or beef, chicken cafreal or xacuti, fish fry, a simple salad or some kind of vegetable foogath, a stir-fry with coconut. Mae’s only contention for the Christmas meal was that every dish should be of a different colour. For dessert, fresh fruits were added in a custard, and it was eaten with a blob of perfectly-set jelly.
The sweets were picked on throughout the day but largely reserved for teatime – always a big affair in the family – and shared space with the sweets sent over from other homes.
Our Christmas traditions have changed over time. We still prepare sweets, though not the variety of before. Our Christmas menu depends largely on time and availability of ingredients, but every dish still has different colours. Once my grandmother turned 100, we swapped custard for ice-cream, her preferred sweet indulgence. Some things though, stay the same: we still gather at the table after Mass to sample the sweets tray and discuss the service, trade village gossip, and dissect fashion on display. And there’s always coffee to share.
A recipe for Goan Dodol
Tia Micas was known for her dodol, and her recipe has passed down in the family. It is now made by my aunt, Gemma. This caramel-coloured sweet highlights the three items of the Goan kitchen: madachem god (black jaggery; translates to sweet from the tree), coconut and cashew nuts. The trick to a good dodol, we learned, after watching the womenfolk of the family, is the constant stirring of the coconut milk and jaggery mixture.
8 big coconuts
1.5 kilos black jaggery
1/2 kilo milled rice flour
Sesame seeds, cashew nuts for taste
Scrape the coconut, grind the flesh with water and extract the juice (aapross). Keep aside. Repeat it three or four times till the coconut becomes dry and you only get water after draining it. In the last extract, mix in the rice flour using your hands to remove lumps. Separately, combine the remaining extracts and dissolve the jaggery in it. Strain this mixture to remove any residual dirt from the jaggery. After straining, put the mixture on the fire, and add the flour mixture. Begin the stirring process, till the amount reduces to half. At this point, add the til and cashew nuts. Once it reaches a sludge-like texture, add the aapross and continue stirring. The trick to knowing if it’s done: touch the hot mixture with your hand. If it sticks to the finger, it’s uncooked.
Oil a vessel with butter and ghee, and then transfer the mixture. Cool and refrigerate.
Dodol is best made in a copper vessel on firewood so the heat is uniform.
Interested to know what Christmas looks like in Kerala?