I am always amused when I hear of Diwali or other such festivals being referred to as the Indian Christmas. After all, in my mind Christmas is the Indian Christmas.
As a child, I looked forward to being invited for Christmas with my friends for whom this was a family festival. So many distinct recipes are a part of the Indian Christmas tradition — rum-laced moist fruitcakes, rose cookies, a roasted rack of goat and many others. As with other traditions, holidays always have a regional twist and take the flavors of the regional origins of the family.
One of my fondest Christmases was one spent with my friend Ruth’s family, maybe now almost three decades ago. It was the first time I was allowed to spend two days without my parents at a friend’s house, and the spirit was nothing like I had ever seen. Their small house was filled with family from various parts of India, mostly from southern India, where the family had its roots. They all congregated in Ruth’s house, as her father was the oldest of the siblings and therefore had the honor of hosting the holiday. Tinsel and shiny wrappers were all around as everyone quickly and furiously set about decorating the house.
Fond memories of Christmas in the kitchen
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My attention, of course, strayed to the kitchen. Even as a child, it was always about the kitchen for me. The sweet scents of coconut oil and citrusy curry leaves tantalized my spirits with aromas so amazing and yet so distinct from my mother’s kitchen. That is the magic of an Indian kitchen — every cook uses the same collection of spices so differently.
Ruth’s aunt, whom she called Appachi, was amused to see my interest in the food, and she started explaining some of her foods and techniques to me, and I was hooked.
The tiny kitchen was filled with an assortment of dishes, all neatly arranged in copper serving spots. She proudly lifted the lid of a pot that had been slow cooking for the whole afternoon to reveal a whole duck, and seeing the small, diminutive bird, I initially wondered what the fuss was about.
She fried an assortment of golden-spiced potatoes in coconut oil and carefully placed the duck in the center of large china serving plate, something she proudly told me was a wedding gift she had received more 20 years ago — something she often brought along for Christmas, for serving her signature duck. Around the duck went the crisp, golden potatoes, and she hoisted and brought in the gorgeous dish just in time to place at the center of the table.
She was greeted with huge sighs of appreciation by the living room crowd, who had completed their decor, filling the room with red and silver glitter. Lights twinkled and ornaments shone on a large faux Christmas tree.
Amid this magical spirit, we sat and feasted, listening to stories and talking the night away.
Over the years, I have carried memories of the duck and fried potatoes, later joined by another wholesome recipe, for an Indian version of shepherd’s pie. I have re-created them and share with you for a Christmas feast with an Indian touch.
Spicy Roast Garlic and Curry Leaf Duck
Prep time: About 10 minutes, plus 24 to 48 hours to marinate
Cook time: 3 1/2 to 4 hours
Total time: About two days.
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 medium-sized red onion
30 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon freshly ground ginger
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 sprigs of curry leaves
1 medium-sized duck (about 3 to 4 pounds)
1. Place the onion, half the garlic, ginger, peppercorns, lime juice, salt and 2 springs of curry leaves in a blender and blend until smooth.
2. Carefully loosen the duck skin and spread the mixture all over, as well as into the cracks and crevices. Refrigerate the duck for 1 or 2 days.
3. Preheat oven to 325 F and cook the duck, breast side down, for about 1 hour. After cooking, the duck should have released a fair amount of fat.
4. Reserve about 3 tablespoons of the duck fat, turn the duck and baste thoroughly with the fat.
5. Cover the duck with foil and cook for 2 more hours.
6. Remove the foil, baste the duck again, then dot it with the remaining garlic and curry spring.
7. Increase the heat to 375 F and cook the duck for another 45 minutes, or until nice and crisp.
8. Carve the duck and serve with roasted potatoes.
Turmeric, Thyme and Bay Leaf Roasted Potatoes
A beautiful, simple and very flavorful rendition of roasted potatoes, this makes a perfect side dish for almost any meal. If you are making this with my roast duck recipe, add in the reserved duck fat; if not, simply add in another tablespoon of coconut oil.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes (mostly unattended)
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings.
15 to 20 small red-skinned baby organic potatoes (or use a multicolored medley)
2 tablespoon coconut oil
2 tablespoons reserved duck fat (from recipe above) or 1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme, plus more to garnish
2 to 3 bay leaves
Fresh lime juice to finish
1. Cut the potatoes in half and toss with the coconut oil, duck fat, salt, ground black pepper, turmeric, thyme and bay leaves.
2. Place in a 350 F oven and cook for about 40 minutes.
3. Remove from the oven and garnish with extra thyme and sprinkle with fresh lime juice to finish.
Anglo-Indian Shepherd’s Pie
When I first tasted this dish, I was unaware of its more traditional cousin, the cottage or shepherd’s pie; it had simply been presented to me as pie. I fell in love with this deep, seductive version, which offers layers of pure indulgence and flavor. The flavorful mashed potato topping, scented with garlic and rosemary, adds to the magic of this deep and flavorful dish.
My filling has loads of vegetables and can very easily be transformed into a vegetarian dish by swapping the meat for finely diced shitake mushrooms.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
For the mashed potato topping:
4 medium-sized Yukon gold potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon fresh minced garlic
4 tablespoons sour cream or Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon freshly minced rosemary
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 cup broth or low-fat milk
For the filling:
2 tablespoons oil
2 medium-sized onions, diced
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 large stick cinnamon
6 to 8 cloves
3 to 4 pods cardamoms
1 medium-sized sweet potato, diced
2 medium-sized carrots, diced
1 or 2 golden beets, diced
1 cup ground turkey or lamb
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup port wine
1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
1. Cut the potatoes in half and boil in plenty of salted water until they are soft but not mushy. Cool and peel the potatoes and place in a mixing bowl.
2. Heat the olive oil and butter in a pan and add in the minced garlic and cook until fragrant.
3. Pour the seasoned oil over the potatoes, then mash.
4. Mix in the sour cream or yogurt, rosemary, parmesan cheese and broth and mix in until smooth. Set aside.
5. Preheat oven to 350 F.
6. Heat the oil for the filling and add in the onions and ginger and saute for 5 to 7 minutes, until soft and wilted.
7. Place the cinnamon, cloves and cardamom in a spice bag if desired and combine with the sweet potato, beets, ground turkey or lamb and salt. Mix well and cook until the meat is no longer pink.
8. Add in the tomato sauce, port wine and cayenne pepper and cook for 15 minutes, or until the sauce is about half the original volume.
9. Stir in the all-purpose flour to thicken further.
10. Pour this mixture into a casserole dish (I find a loaf pan works well) and top with the mashed potatoes.
11. Bake for 30 minutes or until the topping is beginning to turn golden.
12. Remove from the oven, garnish with chives and serve.
Main image: Anglo-Indian Shepherd’s Pie is a traditional holiday dish for the author. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya