In a country as culturally diverse as India, it is easy to miss on all the good things that go on in different parts of the country. Or even in your own city. Take Christmas treats - I've always associated Christmas in India with plum cake. A cross between fruit cake and the British plum pudding, the cake is rich with dried fruits and nuts, boozy enough to make you drunk and deliciously dark brown because of the added caramel. Plum cake is something that springs up all over Mumbai, possibly all over India mid-December and I've always thought that this is the only Christmas goodie making the rounds every year.
For the first time this year, I've spent Christmas surrounded by East Indians and Goan Catholics and imagine my surprise on discovering a whole world of Christmas goodies I've never heard about. So if you are as unaware as me, let me introduce you to the concept of kuswar. A Goan Catholic tradition, kuswar refers to the collection of treats that are made at home before Christmas. They are then packed in pretty boxes and handed over to visiting friends and family. Three packages of kuswar have made their way to my home this year and you bet there are at least ten things there I've never seen, eaten or even heard of before. Like most things Indian, kuswar derives inspiration from the British as well as from Konkani desserts and Hindu diwali sweets, leading to a mishmash of 20-odd recipes. Fortunately, the treat boxes I got all had a different selection so I seem to have tasted all the usual suspects this year. Plum cake will always remain a favourite, but I now bring to you a list of my new favourites from the Christmas treats I received:
1. Guava Cheese: Ripe guavas cooked with sugar until they are firm and pureed to form jelly squares. Either from the guava's natural color or because of added coloring, the guava cheese is bright red. Because of the high pectin in guavas, it naturally sets into solid squares, something akin to a quince jelly. The flavour, all tart and sweet and fresh at once, is a great contrast to any salty crackers or sharp cheeses you can find.
2. Milk Cream: This sweet will remind you of cashew barfi, condensed milk and mawa cake all at once. Made by reducing whole milk, sugar and ground cashews to a thick fudge, milk cream is always too sweet but nonetheless delicious.
3. Kulkul: Sweet and crisp fried dough that reminds you of shakarpara, shaped like a fusilli. What's not to like!
4. Coconut Ice: This one's pretty much like your coconut barfi but is firmer and has a smoother texture.
There are a few other things that will make an appearance in your kuswar boxes but I can't say I love them. Karanji - fried dough filled with cocount, as well as marzipan is almost always there. You will also get some form of Christmas cake - another variation on the fruit cake covered with marzipan and fondant - but it's either too rich or two sweet for me. I'd take another slice of that plum cake instead.