When Nik Sharma left Mumbai for Ohio years ago, he had to leave his family’s holiday celebration behind too. Now he recreates one of his favorite dishes, chicken cafreal, in his own kitchen.
In the days leading up to my first Christmas in America, I felt a bit lost and alone. It was 2002, and earlier that summer, I’d packed my belongings in Mumbai and flown across the world to attend graduate school in Ohio. This would be the first time I’d spend the holiday away from my family. I was now more than 8,000 miles away from home.
Christmas is an exciting time in India. My mother, aunts and grandmother would start their holiday cooking in the early days of December. There were plenty of sweets and cakes to be prepared. A large portion of these treats went out to friends, neighbors and relatives on Christmas morning, sorted out in small gift boxes, or on white paper plates wrapped with colorful printed paper napkins.
I loved the prep work. I’d get to sit with the adults and get a taste for all the family jokes and stories that they’d share, rolling out the dough for cookies and cutting them into stars, or using rubber molds to shape marzipan, tinted with bright colors, to produce little wreaths or snowmen.
On Christmas Day, we’d have lunch at my maternal grandparents’ home. My grandmother’s dinner table was never empty, and she coordinated the menu details with her children in perfect symphony, like a seasoned conductor. I’m convinced she tasked them with dishes she knew they made well. There was plenty of food, a calculated move in anticipation of an unexpected guest who might arrive. Our lunches were never silent; they were loud and full of laughter and lots of storytelling.
One of the most memorable dishes on our table was chicken cafreal, or galinha cafreal. Believed to be rooted in Mozambique, chicken cafreal was brought by the Portuguese to Goa, where it underwent a transformation and eventually became the dish we know now. The chicken is first marinated for a short time in a cilantro mixture that’s infused with the scent of fresh ginger, cloves and cinnamon, among other spices, and then cooked to produce succulent meat lathered in a rich, fragrant sauce. But it was the crispy fried potatoes, prepared just a few minutes before serving and placed atop the chicken, that gave the dish that extra texture and heartiness.
That first Christmas in America was going to be very different. I’d experienced my first snowfall, and learned how not to slip on the frozen sidewalks after the snow melted and then froze at night. I’d learned that not everyone loves fruit cake as much as I did; rum-soaked fruit cakes were a mainstay of our holiday meals in India. Since I was surviving on a rather tight stipend, I decided to skip traveling to India for Christmas. Instead, I spent it in my apartment.
A couple of days before the holiday, the realization that I was to be alone on Christmas set in. To soothe some of that loneliness away, I made a plan to call my family while they were gathered at my grandparents’ home. This was the age of calling cards, not video calls, and so I depended on my family’s description of their celebration, and left the rest to my imagination. My own Christmas lunch was a bit lackluster. I opted for a store-bought rotisserie chicken and a pasta salad so dull, I’ve forgotten its details.
The next day, I decided to recelebrate the way I knew best. I went out to the store and bought all the ingredients I needed to make a couple of the dishes I knew well, among them chicken cafreal, with a large batch of golden-brown potatoes. My family wasn’t with me, but it brought me closer to them.
In the years that passed, I was able to celebrate Christmas with my family. But once again, I won’t see them this year. So I’ll make a lot of the same dishes they do, including a big pot of chicken cafreal adorned with those crispy potatoes — roasted, rather than fried — along with a rum-drenched fruit cake and a video call.