“The White Witch? Who is she?”
“Why.. it’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter, and never Christmas..”
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis, 1950.
“At this moment you should be with us,
Feeling like we do.. like you love to
But never will again.
I miss you my dear, Xiola.
I prepared the room tonight with christmas lights,
A city of candles…”
Three Days, Jane’s Addiction, 1990
My childhood winters were cold Northern affairs. Stretching across the horizon, the distant Pennines lay dark and brooding, looming over Bury like a dormant dragon, its arched back frosted with fairy-dust snow. There, we’d take our sledges and run them down those Lancashire slopes, fast and true: the icy air stinging our watery eyes, the sledge barely skimming the snowy ground below. We were Peter Pan, we were Tinkerbell.
Of all the seasons, Winter kindled the imagination the most: a twilight zone where reality and fairytale would come together before waltzing off into a blur. Each evening, with the garden shrouded in dusk and the air stifled by unearthly silence, we’d joyously roll about in the crunching snow, crafting igloos out of ice-bricks, crawling into these dens safe and snug from the creatures lurking just beyond..
..Then comes a mother’s call. A warm embrace. The sound of water splashing in a distant room. Steam slipping underneath a bathroom door. I’d leap into the bath, my goose-bumped skin ablaze with the sudden heat.
At home, the faint buzz of Christmas would hang in the air. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and The Box of Delights played on the television set, stories of fantasy and a far-away jingle of sleigh-bells. But it was Chanukah that visited our family each Winter, bringing ancient songs of ritual, sugar-coated doughnuts, and the tantalising promise of presents. I’d stare dreamily at the Chanukah candles – red, yellow, blue, white – captivated by the flickering flames above, iridescent spheres of light emanating into the Winter darkness.
Light out of darkness. Life out of death. For what is Winter but the season of darkness and death. The dark vacuum of Space. Bare twisted trees strewn across a frozen landscape. And for a child, where darkness and death are both fearsome, mysterious and intangible – where evil witches can hide in wardrobes and sly wolves lurk in the shadows – light brings safety and comfort.
So whether it’s the glow of candles or the glistening of fairy lights, there’s something deeply primordial about the polarity of light from dark. The birth of the universe. A crystalline array of stars. Photons fizzing across the cosmos. The creation of light also reminds us of humanity’s mastery over the dark forces of nature. We switch on a light. We create a spark. We are neanderthals discovering fire for the first time.
So today’s dish for the road isn’t just a Winter warmer, it’s also a glimpse of the primordial. For under the Soho Christmas lights lies a small Sri Lankan venue, whose cosy cave-like interior shelters you from the blustery cold. There they serve a bone-marrow varuval curry, where cylindrical fragments of bone lay criss-crossed like fire-wood awaiting to be lit. Smothered under a dark sticky concoction, the glutinous marrow hides in the hollows, ready to be scraped out like slippery jellied caterpillars. In a good way.
Tackling this dish is faintly reminiscent of an episode of Planet Earth. Now you’re a vulture circling your quarry, keenly eyeing up a way to prise out the meaty morsels inside. You can almost hear Attenborough’s earnest tones in your ear. The marrow slips down smoothly, whilst the rich unctuous sauce coats your mouth with a warm blast of sweet seasonal spice. Cinnamon. Coriander. Coconut.
There’s alluring depth and complexity in this dish. And the accompanying roti’s a perfect buttery flaky foil with which to scoop it all up. And don’t miss ordering the heavenly brinjal pickle: a devilishly spicy, smoky, caramelised kiss. Before long, with the sauce now just a recent memory, it’s time to tackle those bones. Chomping at the edges, your teeth gnawing out the insides, your primal instinct takes over. By now, you’re just one paw-step away from howling at the moon.
Hot spicy Indian-style food may be born from a hot sweltering climate, and it suits that just fine. But take it somewhere cold and chill, let its searing heat melt your heart and tingle your frosted skin, and it takes on a whole new meaning. Heat from cold. Light from darkness. Winter has come.
Whatever you’re celebrating this Winter, wishing you all the best over the festive season! Thank you too for joining me on this journey of food and writing, and look forward to seeing you for more again in 2017..
If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy another seasonal post, this time where Spring is in the air: ‘Meat n. Veg at Rochelle Canteen; Sometimes It’s Just the Simple Things‘.
Winter has come.. (King George’s Park, Wandsworth)