Easter foods are delicious reminders of the significance of this spring festival
While food may signify only merriment and celebration on Easter after 40 days of Lent, in reality, each special item is eaten owing to some ancient traditions
The idea of "newness" is inherent in Easter festivities. After all, Easter, the spring festival of reverence and symbolism, which celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, after the austere period of fasting, has a close association with food.
It is believed that one must bake something on Easter, as the comforting smell of fresh baking at Easter heralds the arrival of newness and lifts the spirits after Lent.
The small, lightly sweet yeast buns popularly known as hot cross buns, made of flour, milk, sugar, butter, eggs, currants and spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, are traditionally eaten on Good Friday and are marked on top with a cross. Before baking, a cross is slashed in the top of the bun. After baking, a confectioners' sugar icing is used to fill the cross. The cross symbolises Christ’s passion and death.
Every year, one unmindfully bites into the hot cross bun on Good Friday and relishes a simnel cake on Easter Sunday as one breaks the Lenten fast, perhaps out of habit. Although it is commonly believed that people have lost the traditional reason behind celebrating Easter due to massive amounts of candy and egg hunts, these rituals are steeped in tradition.
The bunny is a symbol of fertility and spring renewal. Small wonder then, that chocolate bunnies are distributed on Easter and patisseries offer many variations in marzipan and chocolate.
Christians consider eggs to be "the seed of life" and so they are symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Children wake up to find that the Easter Bunny has left them baskets of candy and also hunt for eggs all around the house. Exchanging and eating Easter eggs is a popular custom. Earlier, real ones were used, in most cases, chicken eggs. The eggs were hard-boiled and dyed in various colours and patterns, mostly red to signify the blood of Christ. The traditionally bright colours represented spring and light. Nowadays, these have been replaced by chocolate versions.
Yet another Easter tradition is the simnel cake, which derives its name from the Latin word simila, meaning fine wheat flour. It is a light fruit cake made with flour, milk, almond paste, lemon zest, spices, topped with marzipan. It is the perfect celebratory Easter bake. The cake has a layer of marzipan or almond paste baked into the middle while on the top it is usually decorated with eleven marzipan balls placed around the edge, representing the apostles, except Judas.
Since ancient times, lamb has been regarded as a religious symbol. Lamb symbolises Christ, who is known as "the Lamb of God". But before the Christians, lamb was already used by the Jews to celebrate Passover, which roughly coincides with Easter.
This began more than 3,000 years ago, when the Jews were slaves in Egypt and Moses wanted to free them. The Pharaoh refused to let them go, so God sent a series of plagues, the last one of which was the death of the firstborn sons. To spare the Jewish children, God told them to sacrifice a lamb and paint the lintels of their doors with its blood, so that the angel of death would pass over their houses and leave their offspring unhurt. That's why the Jews call this festivity "Pesach", or "Passover". When Jesus entered Jerusalem he told his Apostles to prepare the Passover meal, and they probably ate lamb at the Last Supper.
While traditionally, a lamb considered to be a lucky omen, and is a must for an Easter meal, the forms and presentation have evolved. Roast lamb, which is the main dish at Jewish Passover, is the traditional meat on Easter Day. It is served with mint sauce and vegetables. The dishes today, differ from home to home, depending upon personal preferences. Typically, people opt for rack of lamb and all the traditional trimmings or lamb with peas. However, loin lamb chops, roasted leg of lamb, whole roasted lamb, are some other delicacies that have gained popularity in India.
In India, Easter traditions are followed, but not as strictly adhered to as in the West, especially when it comes to food. Easter eggs, bunnies, simnel cakes and hot cross buns are generally bought from patisseries and confectioners and not made at home. Easter is more about celebrating the feast with special home-made dishes with the family.
In Kerala, the Christian community, may look forward to meat and pork, but sea food dishes are equally an attraction on Easter. No Goan household can do without pork on this special occasion. Pork sorpotel is one of the most traditional preparations from the Portuguese times and is prepared several days in advance to savour on Easter with sannas or steamed rice cakes fermented with toddy. The word sorpotel is derived from the Konkani word ‘soro' which means alcohol. A labour-intensive dish, all Goans have grown up eating this and now painstakingly prepare it for their family on Easter or order it from a caterer.
Mangaloreans believe that although the ‘lamb’ may be the most significant symbol of Easter, the ‘pig’ has always been a symbol of ‘good luck’. They also think of it as a symbol of ‘peace’ — after prayers to bless the home are completed, 'dukra maas' is savoured and hunger satiated, and peace engulfs the house as everyone retires for a well-deserved siesta on Easter.
East Indians, the original inhabitants of Mumbai, who are Roman Catholics, relish fugias or soft and spongy balls, made of flour, yeast, milk, sugar and eggs along with duck moile on Easter. The Anglo-Indian community in Kolkata begins their Easter morning with chicken buffarth, a delicious stew paired with bread, apart from meat dishes during meals that day.
Wine is an integral part of Easter celebrations and many households still prefer to make their own.
So while food may signify only merriment and celebration on Easter after 40 days of Lent, in reality, it is ancient traditions that lie behind the inclusion of each dish of the feast.
Mini Ribeiro is a food writer and critic. Follow her blog here.