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Christmas Cake: The Traditional Sri Lankan Treat Uniting An Island And Its Diaspora

As a child in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Oryan Cumaraiah-Misso remembers excitedly readying himself in front of a handheld meat grinder to crush cashews. It was his part in his family’s annual tradition of preparing a 60-year-old recipe for Christmas cake that had been passed down for generations. Christmas cake – a moist, decadent treat filled with nuts and fruit – usually kicks off the holiday season on the island nation, and for immigrants in the US, has become a way to preserve traditions from back home.

Sri Lanka’s Christmas cake is similar to the fruit cake, a quintessentially British dish, but has since evolved from its colonial roots. Like the British version, Christmas cake includes raisins and cherries, but also preserved ginger, the green vegetable chayote (or chow chow, as Sri Lankans call it) in sugar syrup, preserved melon (known as puhul dosi), candied peel, sultanas and aromatics like nutmeg.

“It definitely has been adapted to the Sri Lankan palate,” says Cumaraiah-Misso, 34, now a medical student living in Fort Worth, Texas. He still remembers being a child and the earthy aromas of cinnamon and cardamom intermingling with the sweet smell of rose essence while being elbow-deep in a 25-gallon bucket, mixing finely chopped fruit semolina with butter.

Marie Shirlene Fernando, 58, a caterer and mother of three living in Cerritos, California, remembers watching her aunt make the cake as a little girl. As a teenager, she took over the responsibility of making the stodgy treat, first for her ailing grandmother and later for her extended family to give as wedding favors. Now, she makes it with her 10-year-old granddaughter for customers across the United States. She carefully wraps the final product in parchment paper and brightly colored cellophane.

Indrika Arnold’s family prepares a Christmas cake at home. Photograph: Indrika ArnoldThis year, one of the packages will be shipped to her family in Sri Lanka.

Given the country’s recent economic and political woes, she hopes the beloved dessert will help evoke unity and remind her mother, sister and extended family, of simpler times of gathering around the table to prepare the cake ingredients.

In Sri Lanka, as the country’s hotels gear up for the holiday season, some host cake-mixing parties, where people get a view of culinary staff combining the fruit and nut mixture with the wet ingredients in a custom-built, 9ft-deep barrel. The mix weighs more than 4,000lb. This year, one even took place aboard a naval ship. Fernando said she was watching the Galle Face Hotel’s recent Christmas cake mixing ceremony and thought to herself, “Oh, I’m so glad in spite of all that’s going on, they are still doing it.”

These traditions were in jeopardy this year as the nation battled its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948. Government corruption, financial mismanagement, sluggish economic growth since the pandemic, the depletion of foreign reserves and the war in Ukraine led to widespread blackouts, shortages of essential goods and school closures earlier this year. Islandwide protests ultimately led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the resignation of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister.

Inflation hit an all-time high of 69.8% in October before dropping slightly to 61% in November.

While Fernando is hopeful that the nostalgia of Christmas cake-making will provide some joy to celebrations, Cumaraiah-Misso worries about how the increased prices of ingredients will affect this longstanding tradition. On local Facebook groups, bakers lament the rising cost of ingredients, with some commenting that they haveve chosen not to make the treat this year and are readying themselves for an “austere Christmas”.

In a country ravaged by a 30-year civil war fought on ethnic lines and where, in 2019, at least 290 people died as bombs ripped through three churches on Easter Sunday, Christmas cake can unite across religions. It’s not just the 8% of the country’s Christian population that enjoy it.

“There are so many Buddhists, Muslims, friends who I have who are non-Christians. They love the Christmas cake, and they wait for a piece of Christmas cake,” Fernando said. She recalls them asking, “Where is my share? Did you keep me a piece?”

Indrika Arnold, a wealth adviser in Lebanon, New Hampshire, has found another set of fans for her Christmas cake: her American co-workers.

“I have some colleagues at work with whom I shared a piece, and they loved it. Now, they always ask, ‘When are you making your spice cake?’” she said. “I even mail it to some of my friends who no longer work with me.”

Indrika Arnold’s daughter, mother and a friend prepare a Christmas cake. Photograph: Indrika ArnoldShe only made a half recipe when she started making Christmas cake five years ago. Now she’s doubled it.

Arnold moved to the US 22 years ago but only started making the rich cake – as it’s known at other times of year – to share the tradition with her 12-year-old daughter. She has core memories of sitting around the kitchen table with her siblings and parents, cutting the preserved fruit into small pieces, and sneaking bits of raisins and cashews into her mouth when no one was looking.

“A week or two before Thanksgiving, I get all the ingredients, and we actually get together as a family and cut it and we all take turns mixing the booze and the honey,” she said about how she continues this tradition with her daughter and husband in the US. She then leaves the fruits to stew in the alcohol mixture for at least two weeks, kick starting the holidays in their home.

Like Arnold, Fernando also plans to gather around the table with her granddaughter to finely chop the fruit, which will then be soaked in a brandy mixture for one day.

“By making it every Christmas, it has become a part of celebrating Christmas as Sri Lankans overseas,” Fernando said.

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