What to cook in January: Aromatic curries, rice dishes and vegetable stews to positively envelop us
What better time of year to permeate your space with heat and spice of all kinds
My parents, uncles, great-aunties — they were big party people when I was a kid! Or so it seemed to me. I grew up spending weekends in homes bursting with cousins (both related and not related) and adults shouting happily over music. No one fussed to eat until 9 or 10 at night, in true Sri Lankan style, snacking in the meantime on short eats — an entire category of Sri Lankan food designed for eating in between more serious eating. Finally, the host and other helping hands would gently heat up foil-covered trays of rice scented with turmeric and curry leaves and steam Corningware bowls of prepared mutton curry, kingfish and okra.
The parties stopped at some point. Blame the busyness of the prevailing culture, or maybe our specific cluster of the diaspora moving farther apart, street by major Scarborough street. But it was still a certainty that in the first week of the year, my parents would throw a serious dinner party. "You have to see your people on the 1st or as soon as possible after," my mom said. The idea was to renew your most important relationships for the year ahead. But in a house where "what you do on the 1st, you will do all year," the idea was also to ensure you'd have your people around you. So without fail, stove fans whirred, I'd be squeezed into an itchy dress, and the doorbell would ring — a sound that sent waves of excitement through me as it sent waves of people into the house.
That the dinner isn't happening in any way this year, with social gatherings on hold, makes me sad, of course, but wary too! I've always taken it as a direct transaction with the Fates: follow through with the auspicious act of gathering the people you want most around you in the year ahead, in order to be blessed with just that.
In any other year, I'd urge you to take on this practice to shore up your luck. In this year, I suggest we simply take the aspect we still can and that can see us through the year: a menu so aromatic and deeply warming that it envelops us. At those dinners, it was always the aptly named kaha bath or "yellow rice" I mentioned, "white" curries of leeks or green beans (pale yellow from fresh curry leaves instead of curry powder), fried spiced eggplant, black pork curry, and a peppered fish that lives up to heat grade "Sri Lankan spicy." First of all, there's no better time of year for foods that let off steam and bubble on the stove, embed spices firmly into your air, and warm you to the point of producing beads on your forehead. Second, while none of this makes up for who and what's missing, this is an ante of sorts too, where we invest with the same good faith in comforting rituals to see the rewards they return. Here are some recipes to inspire you. I hope you eventually get to be with everyone you want to have near you this year.
Yasmin Seneviratne is a producer at CBC Life and the creator of Le Sauce Magazine.