When you think of traditional Christmas dinner, you likely think of the Euro-centric stuffed roast chicken, glazed ham, mince pies and mulled wine.
You probably wouldn’t picture smiling shrimp and longevity noodles; sugar-cured salmon; flavoured vodka; stuffed pasta; or bacon-wrapped cherry tomatoes. But these are some of the elements in traditional Christmas dinners from China, Sweden, Serbia, Italy and Estonia respectively.
And this Christmas these dinners are being made and shared right here in the melting pot of Mumbai.
“Celebrating the traditional way helps me feel closer to my family during the festive season,” says Estonian entrepreneur Thea Tammeleht, 35, who is celebrating her fourth Christmas in the city. “Back in Estonia, Christmases are freezing and there isn’t a lot to choose from, so we our traditional spread involves a lot of bacon, and a lot of marzipan — because that’s a great treat in our country. We even have marzipan bread.”
With the yearning for home strong at this time of year, many expats go out of their way to import ingredients to recreate their traditional festive meals.
“Having all your familiar treats on the table sort of makes up for the absence of snow,” says Italian restaurant consultant Luca Bernardini, 37, laughing.
A bacon-wrapped Xmas from Estonia
Two things typify a Christmas meal in Estonia: Bacon and marzipan.
Marzipan is so beloved in this northern European country that there are legends of how it was first created in this region.
“It’s purely a Christmas treat back home, hard to find through the rest of the year,” says Estonian entrepreneur Thea Tammeleht, 35. “Families back home experiment with it at Christmas and try to create something new — cake, candy, bread.”
Tammeleht now lives in Jogeshwari with her husband Thomas and daughter Mia, 9. She celebrates Christmas with a traditional feast similar to those put up by her mother and grandmother — plates of bacon and bacon-wrapped cherry tomatoes, buffalo pot roast, sausage, pickled pumpkin and sauerkraut.
“We love to pickle vegetables. My family back home will still buy them fresh in autumn and pickle them for Christmas,” she says. “They bring me the ingredients I need when they visit.”
Flavoured herring and glögg via Sweden
When Swedish consul general Fredrika Ornbrant, 47, was a child, she loved to guess the hidden flavour in her grandmother’s and her dad’s Christmas pickled herring.
“It would sometimes be lemon or carrot, red onion, black currant or star anise. Even in the harsh winter months, herring is found in abundance in Sweden, so it has made its way into every important meal,” she says.
Every weekend in December, Swedes also get together to host glögg evenings, over glasses of spiced mulled wine paired with saffron buns.
Ornbrant has celebrated three Christmases in Mumbai, and keeps these traditions alive at her BKC home.
The glögg parties culminate in a Christmas Eve dinner called julbord (meaning Christmas table). It begins with cold dishes — pickled herring, salmon cured in sugar, liver pâté, pickled vegetables and a range of breads. The warm foods include a Västerbotten cheese pie with white roe, Swedish meatballs with lingon berry jam and sausages. Dessert is risgrynsgröt, a rice porridge eaten with raspberry jam.
“As a child, I remember picking lingon berries for the Christmas jams,” says Ornbrant. “I now make sure to get all my berries, cheese and sausage when I visit Sweden. Having them on the table makes me feel like I am back home, excited about finding out what flavour of pickled herring will be served.”
Russian vodka and buckwheat pancakes
The Russian Orthodox Church uses a different religious calendar, so Christmas is on January 7, and the celebration must include vodka.
“We have shots of vodka, neat, before every course,” says Natalia Durbanova, 34, a risk and compliance manager. “It is usually had very cold, so I serve it straight from the freezer.”
Far from their families, Durbanova and her Russian roommate, marketing manager Olga Shabalina, 24, will be cooking their Christmas feast together at their Malad home.
The focus of their spread will be vodka and blini (thin buckwheat pancakes) topped with caviar.
“We eat blini a lot at home, and when you add caviar it becomes a special treat for the holidays,” says Shabalina. “We don’t have too many fresh vegetables in winter, so we have pickles veggies and a buckwheat salad as sides for roast meat or fish.”
The roast fish is what the girls are having most trouble with. Traditionally, they would serve thinly sliced Arctic river fish garnished with salt and pepper. “That’s clearly out of the question,” says Durbanova, laughing. “So instead we’re using basa.”
Foie gras and raw oysters
For French sales manager Jean-Claude Bidaut, 58, this will be his first Christmas in India.
“We usually have a luxurious meal featuring food we wouldn’t normally eat through the year,” says the Powai resident, smiling. This year, his list includes foie gras, saucisse sèche (dried sausage), raw oysters with a dash of lemon and vinegar, Belgian chocolate and champagne.
“I’ve been collecting these items over the past few months, asking friends to bring some when they visit,” he says.
The main dish will be a roast duck or goose, served with potatoes. “Hunting is a common pastime in France and people like to eat big game such as boar, deer or goose. It represents our attachment to the countryside, irrespective of where we live,” he says. “Foie gras is eaten only in winter, because of its high fat content. Oysters are only eaten in winter because they stay fresh longer in the cold. We eat them raw to savour their delicate flavour.”
Noodles for longevity and luck
“All the food on our Christmas table has meaning,” says Kelvin Cheung, 35, executive chef at One Street Over in Khar.
Cheung will be celebrating his fifth Christmas in the city, with a hybrid meal at his Bandra home that combines Chinese and American traditions. The Chinese aspects are the quirky surprises.
For instance, the main course of roast duck or chicken is served whole, intact from nose to tail, and must be finished in one sitting. “This practice relates to an ancient Chinese proverb that says whatever you start should have a proper finish,” says Cheung.
A traditional Christmas meal has 12 courses; for Cheung, the number of courses depends on how much time he can spare. Plus, there are elements such as shark fin soup that he prefers to do without.
Two things are always on the menu — fortune rice and longevity noodles. “The fried rice has ingredients that symbolise a year of good luck, happiness and health; the pork for instance symbolises bounty; the shrimp are curled to look like they’re smiling,” says Cheung. “Dessert is rice mochi dumplings eaten with the whole family because the name of the dish is a homophone for union.”
Pasta to bring the family together
It’s Luca Bernardini’s fifth Christmas in India. And, as it is every year, the centerpiece of his Christmas table will be a traditional stuffed pasta.
“Special occasions in Italy mean fresh homemade pasta. Christmas pasta in my hometown in northern Italy is a delicate ravioli-like dumpling called cappellacci. Making it is a long process, so it is made by whole family,” says Bernardini, 37, a restaurant consultant who lives in Santacruz. “As kids, our entire family of 12 — parents, grandparents, brothers and cousins — would wake up early to make the pasta. Then we would go to church together.”
In Mumbai too, Bernardini, his wife and his parents spend Christmas morning making the cappellacci.
Entrees are fresh-baked bruschetta topped with cherry tomatoes, anchovies and shavings of pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and cured meats like salami and prosciutto.
The dessert is a local favourite — panpepato, a round, hard cake made with chocolate, spices and lemon zest. “The elements that are hardest to source for me now are the cheeses, cured meats and anchovies,” says Bernardini. “I start scouting three months in advance, and what I can’t find among the imports, my parents bring when they come down for Christmas.”