A CHRISTMAS LOG

Faced with the crisis of Christmas shopping, Anu Lakhan realises the solution lies once again in her kitchen • Plus a guide to the sweets that appear

–Illustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini Seereeram

The dread I feel at Christmas is entirely owing to the gift situation.
A fairly traditional Hindu upbringing has failed to instil a healthy degree
of asceticism amongst my relatives: we are devoted to presents. This poses
problems for someone with the shopping aptitude of a watermelon. It has taken
me the better part of three decades to figure out that my salvation lies
where it inevitably does: in food.

The 12th Day Before Christmas
Halfway through December, and though I have not bought a single present,
it appears that I still have an unusually large number of siblings, small
relatives, and assorted persons in my life. How did I let this happen?
Again. Because I am a coward. I fear the rabid shoppers coveting their
neighbours’ goods and the slow descent into madness from over-exposure to
shrill children’s choirs and cuatros. I stare at the series of gift-lists
like I’m reading a tarot deck.

The 11th Day Before Christmas
A dozen lamb pastelles later (“consumption pattern” on my retail expeditions
measures what is eaten, not bought) and still no presents. No, no one
in my family wants a poinsettia-patterned tea-cosy or a manger scene made
from egg cartons, but if I eat enough of these very sugary cookies I may
fall into a coma and not wake up until Easter. Online shopping has proved
unsuccessful because it deprives me of the false hope of impulse purchasing.

The 10th Day Before Christmas
And then, as if by divine inspiration, it hits me: food! No one in
my family cares much for getting flowers, so I’d thought that, like the
perishable blossom, the transient pleasures of the edible would be derided.
But is my family not the very one whose only excess greater than gift-giving
is lavish cooking? I let the idea, the rightness of it, sink in under the
weight of Christmas party ham and homemade bread. This is no box-of-chocolates,
tin-of-biscuits idea: it calls for skilled planning, deep character insight,
and actual work. But I feel equal to the task: I fear nothing in my own
kitchen the way I fear the manic traffic and Santa-driven fire engines.

The 9th Day Before Christmas
I throw out all the old lists. I line up my cookbooks and recipe files
and make notes. No one makes anything easy for me. There are allergies
to be considered, vegetarianism and a host of other infirmities. That really
good chicken liver paté recipe that insists on feeding about fifty
no matter how I adjust it is out. No shellfish, nothing with too much chocolate.
This is worse than catering for a party, because there must at least be
the appearance of sensitivity to the needs of those being fed.

The 8th Day Before Christmas
I know what I can’t make and what I won’t make. Pastelles, perhaps
the best reason not to hibernate for Christmas, are out of my league.
Making them involves something tricky with cornmeal and something intimidating
with a banana leaf. Besides, they’re too common just about now. It’s too
late to take on the monumental sausage-making task I have started to fantasise
about. I don’t know how sorrel became the Christmas drink since I don’t
know anyone who willingly consumes it.

The 7th Day Before Christmas
I settle on three items all from the noble family of baked goods: shortbread,
toffee bars, and a very light fruitcake. Shortbread is always a winner
because, though easy to make, it has the glamour of things that a long
time ago came home in suitcases after international travel. The toffee
bars really contain no toffee at all. They fall somewhere between biscuit
and brownie texture, are filled with almonds, may or may not be covered
in chocolate, and as far as I can tell are not made outside of my family.
The misnomer remains something of a mystery, as does the origin of the recipe.
The fruitcake is my concession to the spirit of the season.

The 6th Day Before Christmas
I’m still deciding on the best time to deliver the goods — surely five
o’clock on Christmas morning, my family’s traditional gift-swapping time,
is not a propitious time to offload high-calorie treats on either the aged
or already-hyper youth. In the meantime I can work out the problem of
presentation. I have intelligently structured my schedule so that there
is plenty of time to chase appropriate packaging. Tins, which I am determined
to use for their snazzy yet quaint feel, are only deceptively commonplace.
In truth, I am on the verge of surrendering to zip-loc bags when I finally
find a place willing to sell me unbranded tins. Forget all this “it’s what
on the inside that counts” business. If you’ve ever bought anything that
was an eighth the size of its blister pack you know that appearances matter.
I make labels with a picture of a Zen-like cat in honour of my newfound peace
with the holiday and of my newfound pet, who is both a cat and Zen-like.

The 5th Day Before Christmas

The cakes will have to be first: one, because they will
keep longest, and two, because they are the easiest to make and will give
me encouragement to go on. I find the traditional Trinidadian black cake,
the fruitcake to end all fruitcakes, to often be the end of me. Its flavours
are so intense as to be daunting. It is one thing for a cake to be difficult
to prepare, but I am on principle opposed to foods that ask too much of
me at the eating stage. One does not like to feel engaged in a test of wills
with dessert. I decide on a lightish sponge imbued with fruit that has
been soaking in rum for longer than any primate has been upright. The result
is fragrant but not overwhelming, flavourful rather than gagging.

The 4th Day Before Christmas
The trouble with the toffee bars is that their delicate balance does
not allow for unlimited multiplication. If the recipe is more than doubled,
you end up with something more like insulation material than food. Unlike
the magic paté recipe that can feed infinite guests, the toffee
bar recipe seems to suffer a diminishing effect. Every time I make it,
less comes out of the oven than went in. The more people ask for it, the
fewer bars are produced. Might the toffee bar have a bright future on the
stock exchange?

The 3rd Day Before Christmas
I have come to feel about shortbread the way I feel about pepper jelly;
they are among the most rewarding things to actually cook. No one thinks
to make them and therefore people are terribly impressed when they are presented.
Unfortunately, the thing that would make my shortbread truly magnificent
would be its consent to be cut into pleasing shapes. This is not to be.
I do not despair. It is crumbly-buttery-light, never mind the pieces look
like continental shift charts.

The 2nd Day Before Christmas
I have the singular delight of delivering my shiny packages just

when everyone else is at breaking point. Not only am I to be congratulated
on making it through the season without the traditional panic, but my well-timed
distribution seems a nice treat for those still suffering. O tidings of
comfort and joy.

Christmas Eve
A deep peace envelopes me. Is it the goodwill of the season, or the
smug satisfaction of beating everyone to the present finish-line? Does it
matter? Maybe this year when I have to wish people “Merry Christmas” at
an unholy pre-dawn hour I won’t even snarl.

RECIPE: Coconut shortbread

4 oz flour
2 oz corn starch
4 oz salted butter
2 oz icing sugar
3 tablespoons freshly ground coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

Sift together the flour and corn starch (also called corn flour, but
definitely not to be confused with corn meal). Cream the butter and icing
sugar and add essence before mixing in the flour and corn starch.

Now, about the coconut. A de-husked coconut, referred to as a “dry”
coconut, is not hard to find in Trinidad. I can make no claim for any other
territory, Caribbean or otherwise. If you’re using a dry coconut, break
the shell, remove the hard flesh, peel off the brown skin, and grind, grate,
or mince enough to give you three heaped tablespoons. The coconut should
be as finely ground as your choice of appliance will allow. “Fresh” frozen
coconut will work too, but not the desiccated stuff used to make coconut cream.

Mix the coconut in with the rest of the ingredients. On a sheet of
wax paper (lightly buttered and dusted with icing sugar) roll out an 8-inch
circle, a little more than an inch thick. Anything less feels stingy, more
is starting to become a brownie. Use a fork to make tiny holes all over
the circle. Bake at 350º for about 30 minutes.

SWEET THINGS

Weakness for sweetness

This year, Divali, the Hindu festival of lights, and the Muslim Eid-ul-Fitr
both occur within the last two months. The curries, chokas, and chutneys
that predominate at these gatherings are ever popular; the national enthusiasm
for them loses nothing from their ready availability throughout the year
from roti shops.

But the sweets, usually served not so much as dessert but in a sort
of party bag, are another matter altogether. Until fairly recently, Indian
sweets were prepared almost exclusively at home, making big celebrations
like Eid and Divali the main opportunities for those outside the faiths to
get in on the goodies.

Since the Muslim and Hindu communities of Trinidad share a common Indian
ancestry, it is not surprising that the lines of “who brought what” are
somewhat blurred, that flavours have been adapted and names have been thoroughly
muddled.

The first Indian sweet to cross over into the mainstream
Trinidadian diet was probably kurma, sticks of crunchy fried dough
rolled thickly in sugary syrup. Made with a base of fresh milk in India,
but powdered milk in Trinidad, the versatile barfi, accented with
coconut or nuts, is another crowd favourite; so too the deep golden balls
of ladoo made from ground split-pea powder that has been fried and
sweetened. Less common but no less loved are ras milai, gulab jamon,
and pera, each one more shockingly sweet than the last.

Of course, what you call gulab jamon depends on who you talk
to. In Trinidad, a kind of soft, obese kurma is usually called by
that name, though in India it refers to a soft, sticky ball suspended in
rose-infused syrup. And the white-grey chalky square Trinis call pera
in no way resembles the creamy white sweet with a soft-cheese texture that
can be found not just in the remote subcontinent but in diaspora communities
in the US, Canada, and the UK.

Mohanbogh, an important offering at Hindu ceremonies, is a bit
like a mass of sweetened roux with raisins. It’s not so radically different
from the halwa made for Islamic observances; halwa is wetter
and less sweet. And our halwa is not at all like the kind of Turkish
Delight it calls to mind outside Trinidad.

With such cross-cultural caloric feasts closing off one year, it is
a great blessing that the aerobically joyous Carnival follows early in the
new one.

Anu Lakhan

KITCHEN SHELF

Never get wiri-wiri yet

What’s Cooking in Guyana?, Second Edition
Carnegie School of Home Economics (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-1313-3)

Cookbooks are tempting. They can’t help it, it’s just their nature.
You succumb to the bright, glossy photographs. You are beguiled by the simplicity
of the instructions. You take them home only to find that the deep sense
of possibility you felt in the bookshop has failed to follow you into the
kitchen. Why does temptation have such a reputation for excitement, when
it so often fails to deliver?

If you’re lucky, you’ll have one book that you really
can and do use, something practical and sensible. If you happen to live
in Guyana, that book is likely to be What’s Cooking in Guyana? First
published in 1973 by the Carnegie School of Home Economics in Georgetown,
the book’s second edition has been revised and glammed up a bit, but maintains
a no-frills approach to food. Like its Trinidadian parallel, the Naparima
Girls’ High School Cookbook, What’s Cooking
offers a wealth of nutritional
facts, helpful measurements, and kitchen tips. Guyana’s strong Amerindian
and East Indian influences are well represented, and no exotic, impossible-to-find
ingredients were involved in the making of this book. The recipes have
that ring of authenticity that comes from familiarity: these could be recipes
that are handed down through families but usually never actually recorded.
For cooks not conversant with Guyanese dialect, there is a small problem
of translation: several names for common ingredients, equipment, and techniques
are quite mysterious (what is a wiri-wiri pepper? a banga-mary? married
man pork?). Still, like the Naparima book for Trinidadians, this looks like
an indispensable tool for Guyanese students away from home for the first
time, long-time ex-pats, Guyanese residents, and anyone interested in sharing
the secrets of farine and cassareep.

Jamie Elliot

RECIPE: Pepperpot

What could be more Guyanese than this traditional Amerindian dish?
The secret is the cassareep — made by squeezing the liquid from fresh
grated cassava then boiling it down — which has a preservative effect
on the meat. Once the pepperpot is reheated each day, the tradition goes,
it will last almost forever, supplemented by fresh meat whenever the pot
approaches empty.

2 pig trotters or 1 cow heel
2 lb stewing steak or brisket
8 oz pickled meat
2 lb oxtail
1/4 pint cassareep
2 red peppers
1-inch piece of dried orange or lemon peel
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
3 cloves
2 oz sugar
salt to taste

Wipe and clean meat thoroughly. Put heel or trotters in pan. Cover
with water and bring to boil. Skim. When half tender, add other meats,
and hot water to cover. Cook for about 1 hour. Add other ingredients and
simmer until meat is tender. Adjust flavour for salt and sugar. Serve hot.
Serves 8