Monday, December 25, 2006

The Night Before Christmas

Every Christmas Eve, my mother’s family gets together for dinner. It’s a tradition which we have had ever since I can remember. Christmas is a big thing for Eurasian families. The Christmas tree and Christmas decorations are put up. Christmas goodies (sugee cake, pineapple tarts, shortbread, fruit cake!) are baked or bought. Christmas presents are carefully selected, wrapped and placed under the tree.

My mother reminisces fondly of Christmases past. Those were the days when Christmas Eve was (for Catholics) a day of fast and abstinence. But, my grandmother would prepare Mulligatawny Soup (a hot, peppery and curry-like soup) and boil the Christmas ham all day, filling the house with delicious fragrances, thus making the fast/abstinence all the more difficult (particularly for my grandmother, who cooked the food without even tasting it!). In the days without refrigerators, the ham came cured and packed in sacking. So it was necessary to boil the ham to remove some of the salt.

My grandparents would take their children for Midnight Mass every year. Everyone dressed in their best for church then and obviously for Christmas, a special effort was made. Men came in tuxedos and women in their beautiful frocks and hats. After mass, my grandparents and their family would go home and consume the soup, ham together with a crusty loaf of French bread and a glass of wine. And, my grandfather would start pouring out liquers. For children, he would prepare a special version of Creme de Menthe, a peppermint liquer which he would then dilute with water (I remember him giving me little wineglasses of this too). They would hold open house (yes, this is in the wee hours of Christmas morning!) and everyone would have a good time, chatting, talking and eating.

These days, things are a little different. There is no fast and abstinence (praise the Lord!) and so we have our Christmas Eve dinner at regular dinner hours. And, the variety of food on offer is really quite extensive. This year, we had roast turkey and lamb in addition to the ham and soup (unfortunately, I'd put in too much coconut milk - see below - but it tasted absolute scrumptious anyway). Plus vegetables, lasagna, pasta, rice (saffron and tomato) and gigantic salads. There was fruit, chocolates and cake for dessert and wine to drink. We take out our songsheets and start caroling (not too untunefully, and quite enthusiastically). Then, the kids (defined as anyone who is not earning money) get their presents and they typically put up a little performance for our benefit. Sometimes some family members do go for midnight mass - but we certainly don’t stay up till all hours of the morning thereafter!

Our Christmas tree, too, is a little different from previous years. We have stopped putting Christmas lights or tinsel on our tree. The reason? My dear little cat thinks that the tree and the little baubles, angels and santa elves hanging from its branches are there specially for her benefit and amusement. She also does not think that our arrangements of the tree ornaments are done well and takes the opportunity to rearrange them, frequently taking them off the tree altogether. The result - we have had no choice but to adopt a minimalist style of tree decor.

Here's a recipe for mulligatawny soup below. My grandmother and mother both swear by Mrs Ellice Handy's book, "My Favourite Recipes" and this recipe is modified from her original recipe.

Mulligatawny Soup
based on Ellice Handy's My Favourite Recipes, 2nd Edition. Printed by Malaysia Printers Ltd, 1967.

6 pieces chicken breasts - steamed and shredded
2 cubes chicken stock

3 tablespoons coriander seeds
(tablespoons refers to big serving spoons here)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon of peppercorns (but really to taste - put less if you prefer)
6 dried chillis (again, to taste)
1 small piece cinnamon
2 cloves
1 tablespoon tumeric powder
(the above to be all pounded together; alternatively just use a blender)

4 cloves garlic (chopped)
1/2 cup shallots (chopped)
1/2 teaspoon of fenugreek (or alba)
1 teaspoon of mustard seeds

2-3 teacups of cocnut milk (from half coconut)
Tamarind juice (use about 2 tablespoons of the tamarind pulp, soaked and drained - but this is to taste)
Oil for frying

Boiled rice

  • fry the onions and garlic in a deep pan. Thereafter, add the mustard seeds, fenugreek and the pounded ingredients. Fry for a few minutes, until the mustard seeds pop.
  • Add the chicken cubes, two cups (about 500ml) of water and salt and simmer for at least half an hour. Intent is to extract the spices and flavours from the spice mix.
  • Strain the mixture, and to the gravy add the coconut milk, tamarind juice and taste. Note that the coconut milk should be thin coconut milk. If you are using a packet of coconut cream, dilute it. Add in more tamarind juice if you like the soup a little more sour. It is also good to have on hand some ready pounded spices just in case you feel the flavours don't quite come out. (Obviously this is not something Mrs Handy would recommend but not all of us are such good cooks!).
  • When the soup is boiling, add in the shredded chicken. Pour on top of a serving of rice to eat, or eat with French bread.


Soup can be topped with fried onions, garlic, and coriander. My grandmother also served it with fresh red chilli pounded with salt. Up to each person to decide how spicy and hot the mulligatawny soup needed to be.

Merry Christmas!

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