Kul-kuls: Indian Christmas treat evokes nostalgia and family connection

Brought to India by the Portuguese, these deep-fried dough balls are painstaking to prepare but reflect community spirit

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When they were children, shortly before every Christmas, Ruth Phillips and her five sisters would sit around the table brandishing new combs. They would gently flatten tiny dough balls on the combs' teeth to imprint a ribbed design, before rolling them into shell-like curls and filling the table with hundreds of these dough balls.

The girls’ mother would then deep fry the spirals, called kul-kuls, to a golden crunchiness to share with friends and family over Christmas. Phillips’s family was part of a close-knit Anglo-Indian community, where kul-kuls were made in every home in Abu Road, a city in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Despite the time-intensive process and having moved to Faridabad, Phillips has continued this Christmas tradition.

“Now, I host a family dinner before Christmas, after which my kids, sisters, their children and I make kul-kuls for the whole family,” says Phillips, a home chef.

A Christmas treat native to India, kul-kuls symbolise community spirit and nostalgia. The time-intensive preparation requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to shape the dough with forks or combs. Made with pantry staples ― oil, flour and sugar ― kul-kuls can be dusted with powdered sugar, glazed with sugar syrup or eaten plain, because they are delicious even without embellishment.

“Kul-kuls originated from Portugal, where they were known as filhoses enrolodas, arriving on the shores of Goa [which was a Portuguese colony in India between 1505 and 1961] back in the 16th century,” says Michael Swamy, chef and author of The East Indian Kitchen.

The culinary impact of Portuguese control over four centuries was significant, and included introducing tomatoes, green chillies, corn, cashews and oven-baked bread to India.

The popularity of kul-kuls now extends beyond areas of Portuguese influence, and they are made in many Indian Christian households. “Several Europeans in India married Indians, and culinary traditions were also carried over by cooks and waiters to other households,” Swamy says.

A separate day would be designated as ‘kul-kul day’, when every family member would roll out their dough portions and compete as to who could roll the most
Bridget White-Kumar, author and food consultant

The origin of the word kul-kul (pronounced cull-cull) appears uncertain, but amusing interpretations abound, including that the word sounds like cookies clattering in a tin; and the Hindi term for tomorrow, “kal”, referring to the slow preparation. They are also known as kidyo in Goa, the Konkani word for worms, because of their wriggly shape.

In Abby’s Plate, her blog on East Indian cuisine, Abigail Rebello describes kul-kuls as a play on the Portuguese word carambola, or star fruit, from a tropical tree found in Asia.Originally shaped to look like star fruit, nowadays kul-kuls are shaped like shells or curls, each community having its own style,” Rebello writes.

Most cooks and consumers associate kul-kuls with bonding and a community spirit. Bridget White-Kumar, an author and food consultant from Bengaluru, recalls making them at Christmas while growing up in Kolar Gold Fields, a small mining town in southern India. “A separate day would be designated as ‘kul-kul day’, when every family member would roll out their dough portions and compete as to who could roll the most,” White-Kumar says.

“We would also cut out hearts, clubs and diamond shapes. Sometimes even our non-Christian friends would help us in this happy task.” Now living by herself, she makes a small quantity, but when visiting her daughter and grandchildren in Singapore, the family uphold the tradition together.

After creating a home away from home, we feel it is important to pass this Christmas tradition to our kids
Belinda Carlo, Abu Dhabi resident originally from Mangalore

Kimberly Rozario, a pastry chef in Dubai, recalls kul-kuls as the most modest of the Christmas sweets. Long-lasting, they could be stored and consumed well into the new year. “I now live alone in Dubai and Christmas is my busiest time at work, so I don’t make them now,” Rozario says. “But my family in Aurangabad still do. Kul-kuls symbolise the start of the festive season for me, as we would start making them as soon as school winter holidays began.”

Belinda Carlo, an Abu Dhabi resident originally from Mangalore, makes kul-kuls as part of her Christmas kuswar (platter of festive sweets). “We eat them plain or dusted with sugar. When we add colour or form a cone shape, we call it kormolas,” she says. “After creating a home away from home, we feel it is important to pass this Christmas tradition to our kids. It ignites the spirit of the season.”

Variations, in terms of adding food colour, coconut milk and savoury ingredients, are par for the course.

“The shape and size varies along the coast of India, from round spirals to coloured shells. My East Indian grandmother made them sweet. My South Indian grandmother made them salty,” Swamy says.

The dough, too, is conveniently versatile. “I prepare plain kul-kuls with sweetened dough, no food colour or sugar coating,” says homemaker Juliana D’Souza, who lives in Dubai. She uses the same dough to prepare shankarpali, diamond-shaped fried pastry. Illuminda Barreto, a homemaker from Mumbai, sets aside a day before Christmas to make kul-kuls with her daughter, enjoying them as a teatime snack. “I add nutmeg and vanilla, and we sometimes dip them in chocolate.”

With families spread out and calendars becoming more hectic with each passing year, the time-consuming tradition of making kul-kuls is dwindling, but those who uphold it do so to preserve the community spirit it embodies. “It’s a nice thing to do. Despite our busy schedules, we ensure we come together for this. To me, kul-kuls symbolise family,” Phillips says.

Updated: December 23, 2022, 6:02 PM