Christmas was the most exciting time of the year,” says Crescentia Fernandes (née Scolt), 73. It was when her entire family — parents and four siblings — would congregate at the ancestral Scolt home in Ernakulam, Kerala. Even in 1955, when her father renovated it, the house was over 250 years old. The days leading up to Christmas were spent decorating the house and setting up the nativity scene, with each child entrusted with a task.
“All the children gathered around a huge urli (a round brass cooking vessel) in which the Christmas-Cake batter would be prepared using a big wooden spoon, made and kept especially for this purpose,” she says, adding, “my parents and older siblings would take turns mixing the batter while the younger ones, my brother Benno and I, would hold the urli in place. We were then given the spoon to lick clean in return for our efforts”.
Sitting in her house in Farrukhnagar, Haryana, where she lives with her husband, son and 18 rescued dogs, she recalls the Christmas gifting of consuada — “a large tray with samples of sweets made especially for the festive season” — to neighbours and friends. “My siblings and I would take bits from all the trays that came to our house to figure out which family made the best ones,” she chuckles.
Part of the consuada were well-known sweets like neurio, doce, kulkul and dodol. Commonly associated with Goan Catholic cuisine, these treats — also made by Kerala’s Anglo-Indians — trace their descent to the Portuguese, who docked in Calicut (now Kozhikode) in 1498 before claiming control over Goa, and drastically changed the region’s food. Along with papaya, custard apple and red chillies, they introduced cooking methods such as steaming and baking — thus contributing to the Kerala breakfast essential, puttu (steamed rice cakes) — and the use of vinegar and wine as cooking ingredients.
Among the consuada treats is the now nearly-forgotten dessert beveca, or bebink, as Fernandes calls it. “Not to be confused with the Goan bebinca (also known as bibik), which is baked in layers,” she says, “though the two often go by the same name in some parts of Kerala and Goa.” Unlike bebinca, the ghee-and-coconut-milk-infused undisputed doyenne of Goan desserts, beveca is made with nendra pazham, an indigenous Kerala banana. “Many of our dishes, though similar to the ones made in Goa, use local produce such as nendra pazham. This makes some dishes that have the same name completely different from one another,” she explains, while combining the ingredients in a large bowl. She, then, adds a dash of nutmeg to it. The original recipe calls for caraway seeds but she prefers nutmeg’s earthy sweetness.
Fernandes is of Dutch and Portuguese ancestry and married a Goan with Portuguese blood, with whom she ran the restaurant Bernardo’s for 14 years in Delhi and Gurugram. This puts her in a unique position to compare the influence of the Portuguese on the cuisines of the two states. “Traditionally, kokum isn’t used in Kerala, and kodumpuli won’t find its way into Goan Catholic dishes,” she says, “I’ve been trying to chart out these differences and compile these recipes for a book. Especially the cuisine of the Portuguese Malayalis, because we’re such a small community and very few cook these dishes today. If they aren’t documented, they’ll die.”
Her face suddenly lights up with unalloyed joy as she remembers yet another tradition that has, with time, fallen out of favour — making one’s own Christmas trinkets. “We’d cut out crepe paper to make hollies, fill it with cotton, put it through a wire and cover it with cloth before dipping it into wax,” she says. “Who has the time to do this now?” she asks, shrugging, “it is what it is.”
As she cuts the beveca into tiny bits, one can’t help but liken it to the pandemic’s most popular food — banana bread, or at least a gluten-free version of it. The crumb, though not too tender, is light with the sweetness of bananas and coconut intensifying with each bite. The recipe could incorporate roughly chopped nuts and chocolate but it’s sumptuous as it is. “Bebink exemplifies the lost simplicity of Christmas,” she says, “Why must your generation tinker with everything?” Well, it is what it is.
BEVECA or CRESCENTIA FERNANDES’S BEBINK
250 gm rice flour
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated
150 gm sugar
150 gm butter
2 ½ cups overripe bananas, mashed
½ cup coconut, grated
1 ½ cup thick coconut milk
¼ baking powder
½ tsp grated nutmeg
Roast the rice flour lightly and cool, add baking powder and nutmeg and sift. Beat the butter and sugar together till the sugar melts. Add egg yolks and beat well. Add the mashed bananas, ground coconut and rice flour alternately till well-blended. Add the coconut milk. The mixture should be of dropping consistency. If it seems too thick, add the egg whites beaten stiff. Pour the batter into a baking tin lined with grease-proof paper and bake in a preheated oven at 150 degrees Celsius for 30-35 minutes or till a toothpick comes out clean. Transfer on to a serving dish, cool, cut into slices and serve.
(Damini Ralleigh is a Delhi-based food writer)