There are no turkey centrepieces on our Christmas table. Nor ones of chicken or lamb, we just don’t do them. I think if you look widely enough, research the traditions of the bourgeois Portuguese families of Goa, you might find full hog or pigling roasts were a thing, but I don’t think they exist anymore. It may be because no one really uses ovens here. If for anything they’re used for storage, much like dishwashers all over the world. There don’t seem to be a need for either in a Goan kitchen.
But what we do have is meat. Lots of meat. Cut up pork chunks in sauces, beef strips and sliced fish coated in semolina flour fried crisp, a hillocky palette of rice, several technicolour salads and a variety of other dishes that satisfy every craving. The awkwardness of carving large pieces of meat, making sure everyone gets an equal portion, is essentially effaced. Since there are no mains or sides there isn’t really a limit to how many dishes are served. Our Christmas lunches are buffet style, with our tables assembled like phantasmagorical thali plates, though with tempting desserts (famously prepared by my padrinho) tucked in corners with a tower of gleaming unused bowls.
Christmas day for the Dias’s have always been one for family. And when I say family I don’t only mean my mum, dad and brother. A venue is decided much in advance, usually either my padrin’s place or my aunt Lavina’s apartment in Dubai, or at the Villa Dias in Goa where my Nana, Uncle Cosme and his family live, and everyone is invited from the immediate family members to relatives and friends who happen to be in the country at the time. If you are acquainted with some part of my family, you always have somewhere to go on Christmas day.
We take the whole trope of togetherness to a new level. There are people you’ve only seen once a year reaching for hors d’oeuvre plates going around the room, people you’ve never seen before asking you about what you do, and others who you know well but can’t seem to remember their name, mixed in with the well-known and the family event regulars. Religious sentiments are discussed with both seriousness and frivolity, and politics are debated in carnivalesque fervour. Someone desperately wants to start of a sing-song session. A couple huddle away to chatter about someone’s fat wife, a divorce or an insufferable in-law. Children conquer a large room in the house for themselves, and conduct their own activities over their allotted nibbles. Eventually everyone is herded into the room where the food is, someone says a prayer, after which that one uncle always shouts,’Attack! Attack! Attack!’, as everyone lunges for the dining table. Christmas is a massive affair, a feast in every sense of the term.
This is how it has always been, and I’ve gotten used to it. Adolescent broody Leander even despised Christmas dinners; it just seemed such a faff – oh and the thought of travelling away from Dubai, from my school friends and reliable internet, seemed an abominable idea. But I realise now how grateful I am for this one time in the year I get to spend with family. After a year of life getting in the way, of not having the time, or other pitiable excuses for not keeping in touch, reconnecting is a breeze and things are so comfortably routine.
Even though this year two of my uncles decided to take the cooking off my Nana, there was one dish that had to be prepared by her magical hands, one which might have caused upheaval if it were not to be cooked: sorpotel. It is a dish handed down for generations, the quintessential Goan dish, prepared for several days and served as the most sought-after bowl in the room. I suppose that in some ways sorpotel would be considered the central dish of a Goan Christmas table, but is one whose marvel arises after first taste rather than first look.
Sorpotel isn’t a dish of prime cuts. In fact, you are more likely to find all sorts of richly flavoured offal swirling inside. But its taste, the slight thrill of vinegar, the fiery chilli warmth at the back of your throat, the complex depth of the masala worked over a fire for several days in long spurts, and the neatly chopped bits of meat made delightfully tender from the braising process. When there is a pot of sorpotel it is served with a ladle and not a spoon, with freshly baked bread or traditional Goan coconut cakes called sanas that are absorbent pillows of fluff.
My dad tells me stories of how, during Christmas time, some of his friends used to congregate around him and his lunchbox, and ask to share in his pot of sorpotel despite their religious affiliations. This dish transcends all ideological boundaries.
Christmas in Goa reminds me of how lucky I am to have such a large family, so close knit and brimming with affection. It comes as a wave. A massive overwhelming tidal wave of enquiries about your weight, when you will get married and whether your stomach ache is because you may need a poo, one that is foolish to fight, and much easier to embrace. It took a while for me to have this realisation, but I got there in the end. Being away teaches you to miss the spices that season your blood and to cherish the hands in charge of the cooking.
While it is no secret that I can only stand a couple of weeks in Goa before pining for my life in the big city, I do appreciate the time I spend here. I am humbled by the love and wisdom of my grandmothers, grateful that I have the opportunity to spend time with them in the twilight of their lives, eat their earth shatteringly good food and make up for all the time I’ve not kept in touch. It feels great to touch base with my cousins over card games and get teased by my uncles and aunts; to chat with relatives from other parts of the world who’ve also come down for Christmas, and find out about their lives abroad much like my own. From our locals we hear about how outsiders are ruining the Goan aesthetic, bastardising our culture, and soiling our beaches; they point at cartoons of Mario Miranda with nostalgia to help express the Goa that once was. There is enough family to go around, and every time I am in Goa during the holiday season, I find that these interactions help me recognise how much I’ve matured in the years between.
I do recognise that taking stock seems a common theme of posts during Christmas, but I’ve never done it before and I thought it was about time. Irrespective of who I am, the colour of my passport, the accent of my tongue, and the myriad cuisines in which I am so frequently immersed, Goa will forever be my place, with Goan the proud prefix to my Portuguese nationality, and my grandmothers’ cooking, the magical Goan food handed down to me which will forever keep my Goan-ness from fading.