Potlucky!

Folks say this has been the wettest start to summer in 10 years!

Potluck teas, lunches or dinners do happen in India, but they aren’t that common, surfacing only when the crowd is a lot and the hostess’ energy is running low. More importantly, not many hosts would think of ‘troubling’ their guests to bring lunch along. It’s an Indian thing.

Which is why I was absolutely charmed to attend one today, held at a lovely house south of Brisbane belonging to a friend of Melroy’s. We carried along the icky-sounding Chocky Spiders as our contribution to the lunch.

It was my very first proper Christmas lunch over here and the company was as charming and comforting as the setting. I must confess, I have been longing to peek inside a proper Australian home. If I knew I was stepping into one today beforehand, it would have taken away the lovely surprise.

While the house and the lunch proceedings were different from the gatherings we have back home, the warmth and stories and food held the same taste and feel of love.

 

If such was the start to our Christmas season out here in Australia, then I’m looking forward to many more warm gatherings like these! Whether away from family or with, a summer Christmas is a cheery Christmas, no?

Cross Renovations

As you saw from the earlier post, the cross in our garden has been around since the 80′s. That was when the grandparents and my parents decided to separate from the main family unit (consisting of nearly 80 people living in a single house) and build their own house.

It was a big decision and from the basic look of the cross, you can deduce that not only were tiles popular as grotto decor, but they also didn’t detract much from the true purpose of a cross – a religious symbol.

A handful of our neighbours who constructed the crosses in their gardens back then, used similar basic materials. Even grottoes depicting scenes like the Miracle at Fátima, Mother Vailankanni, the Pietà, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, the Infant Jesus, etc. were sparse in design and aesthetic value. They were simple and functional.

The 90′s and noughties saw a surge of Gulf and cruise ship money and suddenly you began finding houses in Vasai that boasted an adherence to primarily Western influences like faux tiled roofs and lush lawns. Crosses and grottoes underwent a similar transformation.

Today, you will find a diversity of crosses and grottoes in Vasai – right from specially commissioned wooden crucifixes to minimalistic stainless steel or decorative cement-work crosses. Some are beautiful and elegant while some merely frivolous and mildly grotesque.

Whatever these new trends may mean, there is a definite need for breaking out of the old ways and ideas while not forgetting the age-old traditions. This may very well be the new Vasaikar.

Ruminations aside, the cross in our garden is due for a renovation and simply thinking about all the new-fangled cross designs that abound gardens in Vasai these days is enough to confuse the true need for a cross with the need to have a cross that is easy on the eye.

A cross, before anything else, is a symbol of torture and after that, a symbol of one of the greatest beliefs of Christianity – redemption from sin.

I feel people really need to think hard about these before constructing or fashioning a cross for the primary and only use as a medium of worship. Hopefully, our garden can sport a cross like this one.

Rosaries in a Vasai Village

The catholic East Indian community is deeply embedded within the ethos of Vasai and so much a part of the original culture of the place, that it is at times hard to distinguish between us and most Maharashtrians.

Take our churches – decorative elements, sculptural styles and even the Eucharistic service itself are redolent of the original culture of the land. You will find floral motifs like the kamal (lotus), daasungi (hibiscus), aamba (mangoes) mingling freely with vines and roses. Idols of saints sport clothes with a strong Indian character and the hymns and prayers rely heavily on Indian musical elements like raag and are often accompanied by the peti (harmonium), tabla (drums) and in the case of a few rare churches, the sitar.

Our Lady of the Sea Church, Uttan

To attend a feast mass is to take part in a true indulgence of the senses with elements like the aarti (veneration using incense and unguents), the prayer dance and melodious instruments and singing. Even the Passion of the Christ is enacted in Marathi on Good Friday in a similar (albeit less festive) vein.

In fact on Good Friday, some of the churches in Vasai are known to invite members of the Sangh Parivaar. I may be wrong here, but from what I gather, inviting the Sangh Parivaar is a recognition and sign of acceptance of the hindus populating Vasai. I suspect a delegation of catholics are similarly invited to Hindu festivals and gatherings.

A rotating statue of Our Lady of Fatima

The point is, the East Indians in Vasai perhaps have more in common with the hindu culture and way of life than the ones elsewhere.

This has percolated into our daily lives to a great extent ever since the old days.

In our kitchens, we cook nevries or karanjis for our festivals and pickles and papaddums are prepared in much the same manner.

In our fields, old farm technologies like the raath are still very much in use.

The older menfolk in some areas still wear dhotis and some of the women folk still mark the center of their hairline with sindoor or kumkum.

The elaborate gothas or cribs (nativity scenes) constructed by some of the younger folk during Christmas time usually incorporate these similarities in culture and if you ever take a walk in the villages during Christmas, you will know the true extent of this marvellous assimilation.

The Cross in my garden

Our gardens are homes to a similar quintessentially Vasai East Indian feature – grottoes and crosses. Most houses – big or small – feature at least one cross or grotto in their gardens. Nearly every village has at least one main cross – which also functions as a cross to halt at during a parish-wide Station of the Cross procession on Good Friday.

Sacred Heart icon designed in a traditional style

The months of May and October especially, are dedicated to rosaries and prayer ceremonies conducted at the cross or grotto in the garden. Friends, neighbours and relatives are invited on these occasions for a 30-minute rosary or prayer service by the family conducting it and then treated to sherbet (cold-drinks) and baafleley channey (boiled grams) and if it is summer, cake and kulfi (Indian iced-gelato on a stick).

The garden at my maternal home has a cross that was erected by my grandparents around the time my parents built the house. Usually, each family has a fixed day on which they conduct the house or cross rosary – ours was conducted on the day of my grandfather’s birth and usually in the evenings, after most people returned from work.

Preparations for the rosary would start a day or two in advance with mum buying grams and dad stocking on Rasna (a brand of mix-at-home sherbet) and sugar.

The next day my sister and I would be put to work to mix all that Rasna and sugar with water (tiresome I tell you!) to make the concentrate syrup. The retro glasses (every family had at least two sets) would also need a scrubbing for the occasion and guess which two girls had to do the honours?

My uncles would then mix this concentrate with water or soda on the day of the rosary to serve to the guests. This was back in the days when Sprite and Fanta were considered deluxe drinks and people were willing to completely disregard convenience.

On the rosary day, my sister and I would be dispatched to the far corners of the village and to the houses of our many relatives in the neighbouring villages to invite people personally for the rosary service. We would set out on borrowed bicycles (when we didn’t have our own) and visit each catholic house in the village to invite people with a carefully rehearsed invite. Village friends our age would be similarly deployed by their parents or uncles and aunts for rosaries in their families.

A grotto outside the church at Uttan

A decade ago, when the rosary attendance in the village fell really low, the (catholic) village heads introduced a rule where at least one member from each family was required to attend any rosary services that a family conducted. Families that failed to do so were fined at yearly meetings. It worked.

A regular rosary service is made up of the main rosary (Our Father, Hail Mary-Holy Mary, the Glory) and is interspersed with hymns – all in Marathi in a traditional East Indian household like ours. This is followed by a bible reading, prayers of the faithful and finally – when granddad was alive – a hymn in Latin.

The drinks and grams were then served by the children of the family and leftover grams were wrapped up in newspaper pudis (packets) and handed to each family. There were always leftover grams and nobody said no – no matter how badly the channas were cooked.

Little traditions are what communities are built on and sustained on and the cross or grotto rosary is one such staple that the East Indians of Vasai religiously cling to and enjoy. Even in this age of Sprite and plastic cups and 15-minute prayers. The style may have changed, but the spirit remains the same.

Mmm… Marzipan!

For as long as I can remember, cooking marzipan has always been a woman thing. When Nana was alive and mobile, she would gather my sister and me around the dining table and make us help her and our mum out with the Christmas sweets. Kal-Kals had to be curled up a particular way, stuffing for the nevris had to have the right ratio of ingredients and stirring the cashew paste for marzipan was a shared activity.

A platter of traditional East Indian Christmas sweetmeats is a wonderful sight. Kal-Kals, Nevries, Dahl sweet, Coconut burfis, Coconut canapés, date pudding/cake, Jejubs, Fruit cake, Milk cream, Marzipan, Date rolls, Butterfly wafers, etc. are just a few that find their way into houses and bellies at Christmas-time. Back then, Christmas was when the women of the family came together and shared cooking tips with the younger girls. Us young ‘uns for that matter, loved being around vessels that had to be licked clean, so it was a great deal everything said and done.

Which is why when I made marzipan yesterday, I couldn’t help but feel a bit teary over how odd it felt to be making it by myself. It was the first time for me but surprisingly, it turned out quite delicious in the end.

Most cultures make home-made marzipan using almonds, but a small chunk like us East Indians make it using cashew nuts. Even if both are primarily dried fruits, there is a vast difference in taste. Marzipan made of cashews is far richer and involves lesser ingredients than marzipan made out of almonds.

I’m not very sure about the cooking process though. Considering the amount of patience and energy required to make marzipan the East Indian way, I wouldn’t be surprised if the other type involves an equal amount.

When I set out to make marzipan here in my Australian home, I had a major problem. No molds and no Crawford Market or Vasai Bazaar at hand to procure them. Trusty rubber molds with assorted shapes like sea-shells, fruits, flowers and geometric ones are a staple in every Christian house-hold in Bombay and are available in stores in areas with a strong Christian presence. They are not very expensive either.

I expected to find similar cooking accessories out here, but no go. You would think in a country filled with Master Chef fangirls and women who seem to be aces at nearly everything they cook, you would at least find a decent marzipan mold. Sigh.

All I came across were some wacky Christmassy ice trays and jelly molds in David Jones and the local supermarket. The sales ladies advised me that the consistency of marzipan may not be suitable for the molds they had available. However, if you are of a mind to order some gorgeous molds online, then head to Baking Pleasures and if you happen to be in Mumbai, do make a trip to Crawford Market.

No molds and my own two hands resulted in me falling on the backup plan – creating whimsy marzipan shapes! Believe you me, this is as fun as mucking about with Play-Doh.

The internet is the frantic cook’s emergency kitchen and I found some terrific inspiration lurking in the most unlikeliest places. Take for instance, the eight-year-old genius who taught me how to make calla lilies and roses from marzipan and some more floral inspiration from a girl who seemed to have a lot of patience with edible flowers.

Cake Journal was another brilliant place where I came across a delicious recipe for marzipan bombs / balls (à la rum balls) and a handy tute on crafting wee little roses. Nonetheless, these paled in front of the stupendous recreation of Hagrid’s hut complete with a Hippogryph that I stumbled across on Gingerbread House Heaven! Inspiration for marzipan begins and ends there, I say!

Being a novice at marzipan makes you realign your designs and ambitions though and so I started with button-faced snowmen, some curiously warm snowmen and a few portly penguins. I gave a miss to the traditional marzipan sea-shells East Indians are notorious for making as well as the tried and boring marzipan fruits and flora. Cakeology had some scrumptious-looking marzipan cakes, but I have bookmarked them for future dexterity with marzipan. Mr. Hanky Poo too has been quietly bookmarked for a potential prank *wink*.

East Indian marzipan is a bit tricky to make. This will be surprising to some people, especially if I mention that all I used to make marzipan were ground cashews, rose-water, egg whites and sugar.

The hard bits are:

Making sure the cashews are ground not too coarse and not too fine. Apparently, the finer you grind them, the more oil they secrete.

Ensuring your stirring arm and back are up to the hour-long stirring session. Or simply have a mischievous elf or two around to share the burden.

Ensuring you have the consistency of the cooked dough just right.

Having nerves of steel when it’s time to knead the scalding hot dough. A colourful vocabulary has been known to alleviate the pain involved in this step as well.

 

Working on my own, I began with the preparation process at 2:00 pm and completed the shapes at 8:30 pm. However, I had a lot of marzipan (I used 500 gms of cashews – 150-200 gms is generally enough) to play around with, so the entire deal depends on how much you plan on making and how many people you have at hand to help you.

Trust me, it’s fun and infinitely better if you have company. However, classic Christmas carols and a fertile mind have been known to take people to experimental marzipan heaven as well.

At the end of my marzipan-making session, I had:

A monumental ache in my back.

An army of utterly bewitching penguins and snowmen.

A very, very dashing gendarme.

A grin as wide as Giriz talav.

Two very thrilled and happy men.

Extremely proud parents.

Hearty adulation from my peers.

S.A.T.I.S.F.A.C.T.I.O.N.

Oh yeah, marzipan sessions are fun alright. Ping me if you need the recipe. I charge photographs of your result and an exciting account of all the fun YOU have making ‘em!

P.S: You can find the recipe for the Marzipan I made on my food blog, Fritters & Foogyas.