IN THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
Likewise, for 68-year-old Mary Gomes of Mary's Kafe (open since 2008), Christmas is the season to spend quality time with her family, and of course, feast. "Food brings unity," she says passionately. Gomes' family is a close-knit one. "During Christmas, our house is the headquarters for our entire family. They would stream in and out, sometimes beginning as early as the morning, immediately after breakfast!"
When she was younger, the festivities started on Christmas Eve, after mass. At the supper table would be pie filled with a tasty stew of spare ribs, smoked sausages, bacon bones, egg wedges, chicken, carrots and cabbage. Unlike the rustic English chicken pie, the Eurasian version uses a mix of Asian spices, including star anise and cloves to give wonderful depth to the stew. The best part? The thick and buttery pastry that is baked to golden perfection.
And yet, for Gomes and her family, having pie was considered a bonus, as they came from humble beginnings. She says fondly, "My mother absolutely loved pie. She would have the leftovers for lunch, tea and dinner the next day. Of course, for her, it was never complete without achar (pickled vegetables)." Christmas Day brought with it other dishes that the family relished, including pigs' trotters cooked with kiam chye (preserved vegetables) and sour plums, served with piping hot rice, sliced red chilli and black sauce.
Now, with a family of her own, Gomes continues this Christmas tradition. But her spread on Christmas Day is more elaborate: the muchloved feng, roast beef, shepherd's pie, and most importantly, debal curry (this spicy dish is usually created with leftover Christmas meats. The word ‘ debal’ means ‘leftovers’ in Kristang language, but it was sometimes mis-heard as ‘devil’). She says fervently of debal curry, "You must add bacon bones! That is what lends flavour to the dish."
In the Gomes' household, the debal curry contains babi panggang (grilled or roasted pork) as well as smoked spare ribs, and is cooked with a rempah comprising onions, chilli, mustard seeds, ginger and vinegar. She explains this is different from some Eurasians, who prefer to use heavier flavours, like belacan, lemongrass and candlenut. And even though there is no right or wrong, she will not compromise on how the rempah is cooked. Therein lies the secret to a good Eurasian curry, Gomes says. "If you don't fry your rempah well, you will find that the dish retains the taste of the raw spices, and it won’t taste good."
Gomes developed her passion for being in the kitchen at a young age. She reminisces, ”On Sundays after mass, we would follow my mother to Tekka market to buy that evening’s dinner ingredients. I started peeling potatoes and onions when I was six. I was her assistant!” Six decades on, Gomes' passion for Eurasian cuisine is still strong. "When something is a passion, you are happy to do it, without feeling like it is a chore." She explains of Eurasian food: "Our style of cooking is truly unique, because it's influenced by many, and yet, we've made it our own."
Gomes’ rusticChristmas Pie