The rich culinary history of Christmas in India

Time for a feast.
Time for a feast.
Image: RitaE/Pixabay
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Fatima de Silva Gracias remembers the years when the weeks leading up to Christmas would mean helping her mother prepare sweets and cakes from scratch for the feast day and decorating the house.

“We would sometimes help to prepare sweets like doce de grao (made with split Bengal gram and coconut) and mandare (rice and pumpkin poppadoms),” said Gracias. “Our jobs were spreading the mixture for doce de grao on a board or a white cloth and cutting them in a diamond shape, or sun-drying the mandares, or just cutting doilies in a round shape for decoration.”

Gracias, the author of Cozinha de Goa, a book about the history and tradition of Goan cuisine, was reminiscing about consoada, or the tradition of making sweets for Christmas.

The Indian Catholic communities borrowed the tradition of consoada from the Portuguese, but made it their own by replacing it with the term “kuswar” over generations, changing the many goodies to reflect the native culinary traditions. The Goan and Mangalorean Catholics have their own set of sweet and savoury dishes—baked, steamed, and fried—to adorn the consoada tray to be sent to the houses of near and dear ones on Christmas.

“The trays of sweets contained a little bit of everything prepared at home,” said Gracias. “It is an old practice followed in Goa of sending sweets to neighbours and friends in trays decorated with a cloth of crochet or lace. The tray is never returned empty, except by bereaved families, and is always to be sent back with a little of everything that has been prepared as consoada in their house.” In one section of Cozinha de Goa, titled “Festive Food,” Gracias talks about the culinary customs of Goa during Christmas.

“Most popular were sweets made at home with rice flour, coconut, semolina, channa dal (Bengal gram), and palm jaggery. A few like bebinca, cakes, bolinhos, batica (batega), contained egg and were baked. Some did not make cakes as eggs and butter were costly. In fact, the Goan consoada had hardly any egg-based baked cakes.”

A history of Christmas cake

Egg-based cakes did shape restaurateur and author Ivo Coutinho’s Christmas memories. “Christmas meant bebinca, dodols, kal kals and Christmas cakes,” said Coutinho, who wrote A Day In The Goan Kitchen. While talking about some of his favourite goodies, Coutinho launched into an explanation of the elaborate, labour-intensive process that goes into making bebinca, a glutinous multi-layered cake made with coconut milk and flour. “Each layer needs to be baked individually and precisely,” said Coutinho. “I still remember the bebinca my mother used to make. It was not like what you get in bakeries today. It would melt in your mouth.”

The rich and fruity Christmas cake is still one of the most popular desserts. Between the late 18th and mid-20th centuries, Kolkata was home to a significant Jewish community. At Nahoum and Sons, one of Kolkata’s oldest Jewish bakeries, the fruit cake is the most popular product. In an interview with The Guardian, its owner Isaac Nahoum said: “The cake used to be supplied to government houses. When Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher came to Kolkata, they served him Nahoum’s fruit cake and he said it was the best fruit cake he had ever eaten.”

The fruit cake was also a staple during Christmas for Thomas Zacharias, chef at the Mumbai restaurant Bombay Canteen. Growing up in Kerala, the holiday for Zacharias meant visiting his grandparents in Kochi where the entire family would congregate and open presents all morning under the Christmas tree.

“My grandmother cooked a big feast which typically always had pork, beef, a roast chicken, duck and potato curry, and also some vegetarian dishes and, of course, the cake,” he said. “The roast chicken was different from the regular roast chickens—my grandmother made it in a large kadhai (wok), since ovens weren’t a part of Kerala’s cooking culture. The flavours of the roast chicken and duck curry are very specific to Christmas because these aren’t typically made any other time of the year.”

Zacharias has introduced the duck curry into his restaurant’s Christmas menu. “The duck curry is made with lots of black pepper, vinegar, coconut milk, curry leaves, and thick-cut onions and is served with egg appams,” he said. “There is a great Portuguese influence in Kerala cooking. The use of vinegar in curries comes from there.”

Lunch, not dinner

For Gracias and Coutinho, Christmas lunch was the big event of the day. Gracias writes about her memories of Christmas feasts in Cozinha de Goa:

“Christmas lunch was sumptuous. Goan, Malayan, Portuguese and Anglo-Indian recipes blended together. It started with soup (which was optional) followed by a fish preparation—fish in mayonnaise or baked fish, or fish balchao…Pork preparations were the highlight of Christmas and even the poor tried to have some. A chicken dish in form of xacuti, guisados or assado followed. Finally the meal ended with arroz refogado (pulau) of fine rice… At times, a pudding was followed by consoada sweets”.

She also remembers a cake prepared by one of her tias, or aunts, using vinho de Missa, or Mass wine, along with crystallised or candied fruit of raw shredded papaya mixed with sugar in different colours.

The tradition of sending consoada, said Gracias, persists in the smaller towns and cities of Goa, but in urban areas the practice is slowly dying. There are almost 22 varieties of goodies that became a part of kuswar, but many recipes are slowly being forgotten. “Most of these require an entire day to prepare, like the layered bebinca or the mandares fried on Christmas eve,” said Gracias. “Mandare, the colourful light discs, are pretty tasteless but were still popular in the past. Today people hardly make them. The younger generation have no idea what these are.”

According to Gracias, Goa’s Christmas sweets had a global touch much before the age of gloabalisation. “Christmas confectionery here draws from diverse cultures—Portuguese, Hindu, Arabic, Malaysian and Brazilian,” she writes. “The Hindu ‘food of the gods’ has its influence on Christmas confectionery in the form of nevreo, kulkuls and shankarpalis.”

Even as some households, like Coutinho’s, continue to prepare kuswar sweets at home, the tradition has become increasingly cumbersome as lives become busier. “More and more people rely on sweets available in the market, pastry shops, bakeries, or they buy them from families and specialists who make their kuswar in bulk and sell them during this time of the year,” said Gracias.

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