India's Christmas Cakes Reflect Our Multicultural Celebrations
Image Credit: Speaking Tiger Books

According to the annals of the Mambally Royal Biscuit Factory bakery in Thalassery, Kerala, its founder Mambally Bapu baked the first Christmas cake in India. It’s said that Bapu, who trained as a baker in Burma, set up the bakery in 1880. In 1883, at the instance of an East India Company spice planter (who supplied Bapu with a sample of an imported Christmas cake, along with some ingredients), he set about trying to create a Christmas cake.

Mambally Bapu’s cake is supposed to have contained (among other ingredients) cocoa and dried fruit. Given that baking powder hadn’t been invented yet, Bapu used a local brew, fermented from cashew apples and banana, to help the cake rise.

I wonder what that first Christmas cake tasted like; how close to the many thousands of cakes still baked and consumed at Christmas in Kerala? Or for that matter, the many more made across India? Similar to these, I suppose, but possibly with its own distinctive flavour—which, happily enough, might be said for just about any Christmas cake in India. The general impression of a cake, rich in raisins and gaudy tutti-frutti, dark with caramel, and with a distinct booziness to it is all very well, but there are more variations across India than one can count. The Allahabadi version, for instance, uses petha (candied ash gourd) as a part of the fruit component, ghee instead of butter, and adds a generous dollop of orange marmalade to the mix. Maharashtrians add chironji (Cuddapah almond) to their cake; most recipes from Kerala and Tamil Nadu include cashewnuts. The Goan ‘black cake’ derives its colour from a caramel taken really far.

Our Christmas cakes are a reflection of how India celebrates Christmas: with its own regional flair, its own flavour. Some elements are the same almost everywhere; others differ widely. What binds them together is that they are all, in their way, a celebration of the most exuberant festival in the Christian calendar.

While hotels and restaurants in big cities lay out spreads of roast turkey (or chicken, more often), roast potatoes and Christmas puddings, the average Indian Christian household may have a Christmas feast that comprises largely of markedly regional dishes. In Kerala, for instance, duck curry with appams is likely to be the pièce de resistance. In Nagaland, pork curries rich in chillies and bamboo shoots are popular, and a whole roast suckling pig (with spicy chutneys to accompany it) may hold centre stage. A sausage pulao, sorpotel and xacuti would be part of the spread in Goa, and all across a wide swathe of north India, biryanis, curries, and shami kababs are de rigueur at Christmas.

Of course, as any self-respecting connoisseur of Christmas feasting knows, it’s not just the meals, it’s also the snacks. In the West, these may include Christmas cake, mince pies, and the like; in India, barring the Christmas cake (in its varying forms), the range of snacks can be mind-bogglingly vast and calorific. Among the East Indians of Mumbai, for instance, milk creams, mawa-filled karanjis (puffs), walnut fudge, guava cheese and kulkuls are a must. Kulkuls, squiggly sweet fried dough curls, are also popular in Goa (where there are plenty of other snacks as well, mostly served as what is known as a kuswar: a platter of goodies that can include kormolas, gons, doce, and bolinhas—an array of confections, their main ingredients ranging from coconut to chana dal). In Kerala, lacy, crisp rose cookies are popular, as are ‘diamond cuts’, sweet fried dough, covered in syrup. Diamond cuts, known in Hindi as shakkarpara, are common across north India as well as in Maharashtra; in Maharashtra, they form an integral part of faral, the spread of sweet and savoury snacks, that’s so much a part of Christmas feasting. In places like rural Jharkhand, the Christmas cake itself may be replaced by a deep-fried rice flour sweet known as arisa.

There are other aspects of Christmas celebrations. The Christmas bazaars, now increasingly fashionable in bigger cities. The choral Christmas concerts and Christmas parties, the latter often not merely the smaller dos confined to a household and its friends, but big community affairs, with dancing, community feasts, Christmas songs, and general bonhomie. Across the Chhota Nagpur area, tribal Christians celebrate with a community picnic lunch, while many coastal villages in Kerala have a tradition of partying on beaches, with the partying spilling over into catamarans going out into the surf. In Kolkata’s predominantly Anglo-Indian enclave of Bow Bazaar, Santa Claus traditionally comes to the party in a rickshaw, and in much of northeast India, the entire community may indulge in a pot-luck community feast at Christmas time.

This is India. An India where rangolis and kolams, gujiyas and faral, mango leaves and dholaks have all traditionally been part of indigenous celebrations; a land where, instead of wholesale and mindless importing of Christmas ideas, we’ve been discerning. Where we bring in all our favourite (and familiar) ideas of what a celebration should be, and fit them together into a fiesta all our own. Missionaries to Indian shores, whether St Thomas or later evangelists from Portugal, France, Britain, or wherever brought us the religion; we adopted the faith, but reserved for ourselves the right to decide how we’d celebrate its festivals.


The above text is an excerpt from 'Indian Christmas', a collection of essays, images, poems and hymns that celebrate the richness and diversity of Christmas in this multicultural nation, edited by Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle. Liddle reads the excerpt for Slurrp, this text of which is reproduced here with due permission from the publisher, Speaking Tiger Books.

Indian Christmas (2022; Speaking Tiger Books) | Pgs 243 pages | Rs 699