Never was there a more celebrated and adjective-prefixed Tuesday in the entire Christian liturgical calendar — Lenten or otherwise — than the one that precedes Ash Wednesday. ‘Fat Tuesday’, ‘Shrove Tuesday’ and ‘Mardi Gras’ being the three most popular ways to describe the last day before the beginning of the 40-day period of Lent, when many Christians go on a fast. But with food being the entire raison d’être of our existence, the aforementioned Tuesday is and will always be ‘Pancake Tuesday’ for my family and I.
Signifying much more than the mere sum of their parts could ever aspire to, ‘Pancake Tuesday’ pancakes are made from four ingredients with Biblical underpinnings: eggs, to convey the all-important aspect of creation; flour denoting the Staff of Life; salt for wholesomeness; and milk for purity. Deftly swirling the heavy cast iron fry pan, so as to let the silken, pure white, pancake batter evenly coat its base, my mum would then turn her attention to the bubbling, luridly pink, raisin-redolent fresh grated coconut and sugar mixture that would serve as the stuffing. This typically Indian twist to the traditional English pancake is allegedly in lieu of (as morbid as it may sound) the ‘Flesh of Christ’, the veracity of which is still a moot point with me.
On the penultimate day of Lent, which happens to be Good Friday, another local Mumbai tradition has always enjoyed prime position as an after-mass treat for me. Called gotwal in Marathi and sold in vatas (portions) outside churches, these boiled, lightly salted hyacinth beans are the protein-rich fuel to nourish our fasting selves, more so after the lengthy mass that is the traditional church service on Good Friday.
Easter Sunday morning was always punctuated with us gourmandising a basket of steamy, freshly-baked spiced hot cross buns slathered with good old Amul butter, with little knowledge or inclination to know the buns’ conjecture-ridden culinary history. While it is widely believed that the cross cut into the tops of these buns serves to remind us of Jesus and his sacrifice, others theorise on its alleged Pagan linkage. Apparently, the buns were the creation of Pagan Saxons who’d bake them at the onset of spring to honour Goddess Eostre, who many believe to be the origin of the word ‘Easter’. The cruciform denoted the revival after winter and the four quarters of the moon, as well as the four seasons and the wheel of life.
Another symbol of birth and creation, the egg too has always enjoyed prime positioning as the leitmotif of Easter in all its ubiquitous glory. But my Anglo-Indian grandmother would always tell me that when she was growing up, there wasn’t as much as a whiff of a marzipan or chocolate iteration of the Easter Egg, and that her siblings and she would each be given a coloured boiled egg after Easter Sunday mass. This was because, in her orthodox Christian family, even the consumption of eggs was taboo during Lent, and the boiled versions were thus particularly coveted after their 40-day forced hiatus.
As a university student in gritty Liverpool, tucked away in the grey, gloomy North-West boondocks of England, the onset of spring was always a double celebration for me. Not only would I enjoy a tryst with the sun a tad longer than 3.30 p.m., but also Easter was round the corner. And that meant one thing — the traditional Melville Grove Pot Luck Lunch. My hall of residence, lorded over by our curmudgeon of a warden, would erupt in a free-for-all buffet where the International Students Association would treat us to Easter delicacies from around the world. This meant we’d be tucking into Greek Easter cookies called koullourakia that are made with orange juice and topped with sesame seeds, along with the nuts-and-honey-dripping baklava, whose 33 gossamer-like layers of phyllo dough are said to represent the years of Christ’s life. The Italian students would ferret out cute, dove-shaped, candied peel-stuffed bread called Colomba di Pasqua from their tuck boxes for all to share. For a savoury fix, we’d rely on good old English Easter classics like Scotch Eggs with oozy yolks, and cold lamb pie served with lashings of mint jelly.
Years later, on a work trip to Germany, my business associates treated me to a typical German Maundy Thursday treat — wild chervil soup. As it happens, Maundy Thursday is known as Gründonnerstag or ‘Green Thursday’ in German, when all over Germany, green-coloured food is consumed in alarming quantities.
However, in 2013, on a trip to Russia, my entire definition of Easter underwent a drastic transformation. There I was in May, enjoying a sunny spring Sunday in Moscow, when I learnt that it was Orthodox Easter Day in Russia. Now, this was a little over a month after I had celebrated my version of the traditional Easter Day in March that year. The Russian Orthodox Church, like many other orthodox churches, bases its Easter date on the Julian calendar, which often occurs later than the traditional Easter of the Gregorian calendar that most of us follow.
So, my second Easter feast that year was a bowl of borsch, the bright red beetroot and sour cream soup; kurnik, a pie stuffed with a chicken, rice, and mushroom filling, all anointed with a creamy sauce; and pashka, the lynchpin of any Russian Easter feast. Made with cheese, cream and eggs and served with stewed fruit like rhubarb, this dessert is always annotated with the Cyrillic alphabets ‘XB’ that stand for ‘Christos Voskrese’, which means ‘Christ is Risen’.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer who is an ardent devotee of the peripatetic way of life.
Spiced Hot Cross Buns (recipe)
3tsp dry yeast
75g caster sugar + 2tsp
250ml warm milk
600g plain flour + 35 g
1tsp mixed spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, dried ginger, star anise)
80g butter, chopped
160g black raisins
1 egg, beaten lightly
80ml warm water
2tbsp cold water
2tbsp apricot jam
* Mix the yeast with 1tbsp of the sugar and the warm milk in a small bowl; whisk until the yeast dissolves. Cover the bowl and keep in a warm place for about 10 minutes or until the mixture is bubbly.
* Sift 600g of flour, spice powder and salt into a large bowl; rub in the butter. Stir in the remaining sugar, raisins, yeast mixture, egg and enough water to make a soft dough. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a large bowl; cover with cling film and keep in a warm place for about one hour or until the dough has doubled in size.
* Knead the dough a bit more and divide into 20 portions; quickly form each portion into a ball.
* Place the balls on a lined oven tray. Keep in a warm place for about 20 minutes or until the dough is almost double in size. Preheat the oven to 220°C.
* To make flour paste for the cross, sift 35g of flour and 2tsp sugar into a small bowl; gradually stir in enough cold water to make a smooth thick paste. Place the flour paste into a piping bag. Pipe crosses onto the buns.
* Bake the buns for about 15 minutes or until the buns sound hollow when tapped.
* For the glaze, heat the jam with a little warm water in a small pan and stir over low heat till combined.
* Transfer the buns to a wire rack and brush the tops with the glaze while still hot.
* Serve warm with salted butter and/or blueberry jam.
(Recipe courtesy: Ann Dias)