Who are these East Indians you speak of?

General confusion over our origins is something every East Indian is intimately familiar with.

For a community with roots planted firmly in Bombay, it is difficult explaining people that we are not – as the name points out – from the East of India. We are not (well, most of us at least aren’t) descendants of the employees of the East India Company – British or otherwise.

Two ladies from Uttan wearing lugdas

The East Indians of Mumbai are essentially the native residents of Bombay (of course, it wasn’t known as Bombay back then) converted to Christianity many years ago – back when St. Bartholomew himself visited the Western coast of India (2nd Century AD).

Our Lady of the Sea Church, Uttan

It is to the Portuguese however, who came much later, that we owe much of our traditions, architectural styles, cuisine and various dialects. It was the Portuguese after all, who gathered the Christians already thriving in the area and were responsible for ensuring the continued existence of parishes and churches.

Had the British not been such a dominating influence on Indian politics and society, the East Indians would have probably continued using the moniker Portuguese Christians.

A selection of the traditional 9-yard East Indian sarees called lugda

Over the years, the East Indians have kept alive the traditions that were carried out before Roman Catholicism and Latin took over our religion and language. Coastal Konkan foods like sanna (soft rice flatbread), bombil (Bombay Duck) fry and rural Maharashtrian foods like dried mango fish curry and cucumber cake, to name a few, find their way on to our tables.

The caste system exists in our community and while it no longer holds as much power over modern East Indian society, it does help differentiate the various dialects, cultural traditions, customs and even the kind of masalas and pickles we make!

East Indian pork Indyaal (vindaloo) cooking over a slow wood fire

Marathi however, is considered the mother tongue of our people and for written communication we use the Shudh (pure) Marathi prevalent in the state of Maharashtra. The dialects however, differ from region-to-region and caste-to-caste.

Making foogyas – deep-fried balls of flour fermented with palm toddy

For instance, in Vasai (Bassein) alone, there are the Valkar, Vaadval, Kaado, Koli, Paanmaali, Maankar, etc. – each with their own dialect and with subtle but definite differences in wedding customs, cuisine and jewellery among other things.

I shall use my own people (Valkar) and my husband’s (Vaadval) as an illustration of this difference.

Differences of dialect: 
English – Where have you been?
Valkar – Kaila gelti/gelta?
Vaadval – Katey geli/gela?

{The East Indian Kolis, to mention another group, have a more lilting way of speaking and the sibilant sounds are more stressed.}

Jewellery:
The Valkar gold jewellery is more reminiscent of delicate floral and geometric patterns, while Vaadval gold jewellery is chunkier and heavier in design and pattern.

Aanjelanchi Kaadi – a traditional headpiece made from gold foil, pearls and coral

It is taboo these days to get into details about the caste divisions, and rightly so. But just to illustrate a point, back in the days of the British, the Valkars tended to pursue clerical/office jobs while the Vaadvals were landowners and farmers – these occupational details further shaping the dialects and certain customs.

Wearing the traditional poth (long chain) made of gold and coral over a shawl and a lugda

Our homes were all built the same way though – cow dung-floors, tiled roofs, wooden beams supporting the roof, a proper hearth in the kitchen, a verandah with enough space for a wooden swing and a pit or two in the floor to pound spices. These homes are rare now and are uninhabitable, except for ones in the deepest gaothans (villages).

Today, the East Indians are just one of the many minorities living in their home state and largely forgotten by the rest of Mumbai.

The traditional morlis are still in use for slicing onion, grating coconuts and cleaning fish among other things.

But we are present in Vasai, Uttan, Gorai, Mazagaon, Mahim, Vakola, Kalina, Marol, Chakala, Bandra, Parel, Parla, in every ‘Galyan saakli sonyaachi‘ sung, in the beats of the ghumat at weddings, in piping hot, soft foogyas, in spicy pork indyaal (vindaloo) made using the East Indian Indyaal Masala, in the famous Bottle Masala, in the weave of vivid, bright lugdas and in a lot of Fernandes’, Pereiras, Mirandas, Almeidas, Sequeiras, Rebellos, Lopes’, Furtados, D’mellos, Gonsalves’ and D’souzas.

These last names may be shared by a lot of Goans and Mangaloreans as well, but look closer and you just may be able to tell an East Indian from the other Christian Indian ethnicities.

Note: While I am no scholar on East Indian lore, I have tried my best to present a legitimate summary of my community from everything I’ve learned growing up as a girl in Vasai. If there are any points you feel must be included or corrected, I invite you to email me at almeidareena at gmail dot com. I would appreciate your inputs towards presenting a more accurate picture of the East Indian community of Bombay.

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EI Alert: East Indian Exhibition

Terencia Kinny, a student of architecture has been working for a while now on her Design and Research thesis on East Indians. An East Indian herself, she contacted me a couple of months back inquiring about Teddy Rodrigues book on East Indian history and culture – Trace.

The reason she was seeking the book caught my attention and I couldn’t be happier to speak about it here.

Mark out Saturday, 16 April 2011 as a day to soak in some of the best East Indian culture has to offer. The Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (MGP) is organising the East Indian Exhibition – the first of its kind to be held in Mumbai – with the theme, ‘Amhi Mobaikar‘.

The exhibition commemorates a community regarded as one of the original occupants of the city and promises artifacts, photographs, articles, cuisine and information on the rich culture and tradition of the East Indian people.

A must-visit event for East Indians in the city curious about their roots and traditions, I strongly recommend other communities have a look-see about a culture steeped in Old Bombay and the group of islands once known as just Salsette-Bassein.

Don’t forget to bring your cameras and questions!

My grandma (second from left) with her sister and friends

Event
East Indian Exhibition

Date
Saturday, 16th April 2011

Time
2:00pm to 8:00pm

Venue
Veneration Hall, Opposite Irla Church

Organisers
Mobai Gaothan Panchayat

For more information, contact
Alphi D’souza, CEO and Spokesperson for MGP +91-982-008-7771

Prem Moraes, MGP Exhibition Spokesperson +91-986-736-8669

Terencia Kinny +91-992-099-7944

* The exhibition aims at creating awarenesss about East Indian culture and traditions *

* Various artefacts used by East Indians will be on display *

* Pictures will be used with descriptions on their specialty *

* Families who donate East Indian artefacts will have their family name tagged on them. These articles will then be permanently displayed at the special East Indian Exhibition space at Mobai Bhavan, Manori *

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.

Got Hitched, Hooked and so very Married!

January the 9th came and went in such a blur that Mel & I are still periodically *ahem* pinching ourselves just to check our married status.

Emulating the centrepiece Shawn Lewis made us

Every one who attended the Pereira-Almeida wedding exclaimed over how smooth it went, how perfectly planned it seemed to be and how wonderful both the receptions turned out to be. Every time I hear exclamations like these, I mentally cross myself/touch wood/offer up an Hallelujah.

Why? Because a bride who has been planning her wedding a year in advance knows no respite from stress. Take it as a skewed ‘Confuscious Says’, but there’s the truth for you!

Take the nuptial mass for instance. It was to be a bilingual mass with a majority of the celebration in English and the rest in Marathi. Everything fell into place 20 minutes before I had to join Melroy at the church.

The last offering (a house of thermocol that we simply couldn’t obtain at the last minute) and the gospel readings and the people to do the various readings and the person to organize all of this (Val) were all minute decisions that had me nearly hyperventilating right until the offertory got over.

I even had Mel bemused by my slightly crazed expression during mass!

The nuptial mass went beautifully nonetheless and the choir exceeded my expectations, which is something.

Then came the wedding car fiasco. An open top jeepney was what Mel & I had decided for a wedding car. It was to arrive on the wedding morning all sparkling clean and polished black.

It arrived in the afternoon, all muddy and looking anything but impressive. The ever-dependable Rosalyn assisted by Gursimran and Joel managed to transform the backup car (a purple Honda Civic) into a gorgeous wedding car 10 minutes before Mel and I had to leave for the reception venue!

But I must stop with the nerve-wracking things that went on during those few days. Simply thinking about them is enough to make me break into a cold sweat.

What matters is our families were with us. What matters is friends who stood by us. What matters is the bonds that were strengthened. What matters is the love that enveloped both the wedding houses in a warm caccoon for those few days and thereafter.

What matters is Mel & I got hitched. Finally. With all our flaws and thorns and ups and downs and yucks nd aarrghs, marry we did. And how!

For all of you who made it for the wedding and made it a night to remember and savor forever, thank you!

For all of you who couldn’t make it for whatever reasons, we missed you tremendously!

For all of you who I missed inviting, I’m truly sorry and hopefully by the time the next big celebration comes our way, we shall be able to enjoy your company.

Thank you for being such fantastic friends!