Marietta Gomes makes beef bhuni, payesh and peas pulao rice

Bengali-Christian Christmas dishes: Marietta Gomes with her traditional beef bhuni, payesh (rice pudding) and peas pulao rice. Photo: Pip Waller
Bengali-Christian Christmas dishes: Marietta Gomes with her traditional beef bhuni, payesh (rice pudding) and peas pulao rice. Photo: Pip Waller

"That's what food in India is all about - most of our conversations start and end about food. To make friends, you make food."

Marietta Gomes

Marietta Gomes could speak fluent English when she first moved to Australia but she still struggled with the Australian slang.

She said she would often try to look up common Australian phrases in her dictionary, but could never find their definition.

"One of my work colleagues used to say all the time, 'where is my doohickey?', and I just couldn't understand what she meant," Ms Gomes laughed.

"When I saw her two years later I asked her what it meant, because it had been in my mind for years and I couldn't figure it out in the dictionary.

"She said it just means 'a thing'. I still have a laugh about it today."

Five years later, Ms Gomes, who came to Australia by herself, has settled into living and working in Bunbury as an educator at the Bunbury Baptist Early Learning Centre.

She said she moved to Australia after her sister Diana relocated to Bunbury.

"I worked as a special needs teacher in India, but I moved to Australia to keep studying," Ms Gomes said.

"I really like it here, the people in Bunbury are really warm and welcoming, considerate and understanding of new or different cultures.

"There is a great Indian community in Bunbury, but I have found there are not many Bengali-Christian Indians, so it's important for me to share my culture here."

For this week's In My Kitchen, Ms Gomes created classic Bengali-Christian dishes commonly eaten at Christmas in Kolkata, India.

She explained how she was part of the Bengali-Christian Indian culture, meaning that some of her ancestors were of European heritage.

"Hinduism is the common Indian religion, not Christianity," Ms Gomes explained.

"So I created a few dishes we call the Bengali-Christian cuisine, to help show my culture.

"They are a bit of a mixture of ideas from both Indians and Europeans."

Ms Gomes made beef bhuni and potatoes, a dish commonly seen on the Christmas dinner table for Bengali-Christian Indians.

Using fresh coriander from Diana's garden, and a method handed down to her from her parents, Ms Gomes first fried the potatoes (cut in small cubes) in hot oil.

She added a touch of turmeric which she said took away the whiteness of the potatoes.

"If you add too much, it becomes another dish entirely."

Once the potatoes were cooked, Ms Gomes added chopped onions in the same oil, which she cooked until they were translucent.

Then went in some ginger garlic paste, coriander and finally the beef.

As she waited for the beef to absorb the oils, Ms Gomes revealed that she was the one who taught herself to cook as a child, not her parents.

"My mum and dad weren't very supportive of me cooking so young because they were very protective," she explained.

"They wanted me to go out and play and study, so when I moved to Australia I got a lot more freedom to cook which led to my discovery of different dishes.

"I like cooking because it's my chance to be creative, try different spices and experiment with my dishes."

Ms Gomes said baratha (crispy bread) often accompanies beef bhuni, but on this occasion she had instead cooked peas pulao rice.

The rice features peas and spices including cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.

It is cooked in ghee, which is a clarified butter originating in India.

To accompany the savory dishes, Ms Gomes also created payesh or rice pudding, which is again specific to the Bengali-Christian Indian culture.

"First I bring milk to the boil, let it reduce and then add cooked rice," she said.

"It is another dish we commonly eat at Christmas in India, which helps create connection.

"That's what food in India is all about - most of our conversations start and end about food. To make friends, you make food."

In India, Ms Gomes said Christmas celebrations usually begin on Christmas eve, where family and friends come together to enjoy traditional cuisine.

She said it was an occasion to party, dance, sing and dress up.

"Our staple food is definitely rice, so it's not a celebration without some of these popular dishes," Ms Gomes said.

"On the 24th we don't even sleep as the celebrations have started.

"It's all about family and gratitude. I remember when I was old enough, my mum made sure that Diana and I knew that presents didn't come from Santa, but your parents.

"She made it clear that parents work hard to give their children gifts, so it's very important to be grateful and accept what you get."

As she plated her Bengali-Christian Indian dishes, Ms Gomes expressed how important it was for her personally to share her culture in Australia.

She said although she had the personality to usually "blend in", diversity in communities was important.

"I like to know that I am stable in who I am, because who I am is my identify and I want people to know me for who I am," Ms Gomes said.

"Not many people here know about my culture's religion - so I want to share that."

Although she cooks Indian cuisine regularly, Ms Gomes said her favourite Australian 'go to' dish is fish and chips.

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This story Christmas cuisine from India first appeared on Bunbury Mail.