Sunday December 23, 2012

Special to The Eagle

LEE

David Cheeran, an owner of Bombay Grill here, is an Orthodox Christian, but his staff are all Hindus.

Differing religions did not stop manager Pramod Warrier, chef Vijeesh Parayil, the waiters and kitchen workers from welcoming members of St. Paul’s Indian Orthodox Church of Albany, N.Y., which Cheeran attends, who came to sing Christmas carols on Dec. 9.

Warrier comes from tropical Bombay -- now Mumbai -- on the Arabian Sea on India’s west coast.

"Bombay is a cosmopolitan city," he said. "Everyone celebrates Christmas -- at least, in my generation. My parents are more traditional."

When he lived there as a young man, he would celebrate Christmas Eve with his Christian friends. First, he would go to midnight mass with them, which he said was fun and sometimes held outdoors. Then they would go out partying, drinking and touring the city sampling its famed street foods.

Bombay Grill does not make Indian street food, but will be serving Kerala breakfast comfort food as part of a pre-Christmas brunch buffet on Sunday. The restaurant prepares foods mainly from South India, but also offers pan-Indian specialties

Other staff are from Kerala state in South India, where Christianity is said to have begun when the Apostle Thomas visited in 52 A.D., according to Eusebius, a 4th century scholar of biblical canon and a Christian bishop in Palestine.

Keralians are predominantly Hindu, Muslim or Christian. Less than one percent of the population are Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Jewish or practice local tribal religions.

The state has historically been "inclusive and open" in its religious traditions, writes French author Dominique-Sila Khan in "Sacred Kerala: A Spiritual Pilgrimage."

The earliest Indian Christians, reputedly Jews converted by St. Thomas in the 1st century, were and continue to be the Orthodox Syrian Church.

The Portuguese converted many to Roman Catholicism when they landed in India in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Later, other Europeans, most notably the Dutch and the English, brought Protestant Christianity.

When chef Parayil, who is Hindu, grew up in Kerala, he said his family’s home was surrounded by homes of Christians who celebrated Christmas.

"We had to celebrate," he said. "We decorated the front of our house with special grasses [garlands made of palm fronds]; we hung lights and paper stars. And my mom made traditional dry-fried beef with sautéed onions and kingfish curry and goat. Goat was the most popular."

"She made plum cake," he said. "Everyone made plum cake for Christmas. There were no other sweets."

Plum cake sounds a lot like what Americans call fruitcake. It is filled with dates and raisins, pineapple, orange and lemon zests, cashews, brandy and sweet spices -- but no plums!

"Nowadays," Parayil went on, "people are making duck for Christmas in India."

On internship

Last December, Heather Wright, granddaughter of Pittsfield resident Jane Reusche, was just starting a four-month internship on a bio-diversified organic farm in the state of Uttarakhand in Northwest India. It lies eight hours north of Delhi, in the foothills of the Himalayas just west of Nepal.

Christmas was marked there, but quietly.

"We were far from urban centers," she explained. "On Christmas, we sat around a bonfire and some people went into the fields and set off fireworks."

Decorated restaurant

Parayil is an Indian culinary institute-trained pastry chef. He worked at five-star hotels in India and on cruise ships. He makes his versions of mousses, créme brulée, pie, strudel, frosted and decorated cakes, cream puffs and more.

On their day off, the staff decorated Bombay Grill with twinkling, flashing Christmas lights and stars.

Then, for many nights of the week before the carolers came, Parayil stayed at work after the restaurant closed making Bailey’s Irish cream white chocolate mousse cake, butter-crusted cherry-cheese-pineapple pie and other delicacies. He said he wanted to give the carolers festive sweets they had never had before.

The afternoon was dreary the day they came. It was getting dark. The carolers sang familiar Christmas songs in English as well as a song in Malayalam [mah lay ah LUM], the language of Kerala, which made Parayil happy.

Restaurateur Cheeran understands the mingling of Christian and Hindu religious and culinary traditions.

"In India we are all Hindu, originally. When we converted to Christianit

Festive foods

Fefarayil and the rest of the staff at Bombay Grill -- everybody there cooks -- will be making and serving Christmas, New Year and festive foods starting with today’s Sunday buffet brunch in honor of Christmas. And they will celebrate New Year’s Eve with a buffet including lamb, shrimp, and a quail roast in Keralian Christmas style.

The savory New Year’s Eve buffet will be augmented by almost two dozen desserts. Some are Indian such as jalebi, a crisp, candy-like pastry fried in a thick syrup; or Mysore pak, a kind of soft, very sweet Indian shortbread.

Most are Parayil’s take on European cakes and cookies: croquembouche/whipped cream filled cream puff trees; meringue cookie trees; macaroons; chocolate rum balls; chocolate cake, orange cake, citrus tartlets. All are made in the Bombay Grill kitchen from scratch.