Delhi's food secrets

Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi
Pamela Timms
Aleph
2014, pp 169
Rs 395

Pamela Timms’s Korma, Kheer and Kismet could include another K: Khichdi. The food memoir is a crowded, chaotic and spice-laden mix of her search for the inherited recipes of old Delhi through five seasons.

Her smouldering experiences capture the sights, smells, sounds and savours of the noisy, bubbling cauldron city. Her book is packed with her insights into visible scenes, as well as snatches of her memories and observations of not just food, but even life in the mean streets. 

The author, who left “cool, but parochial” Scotland with her husband Dean and three children to search for a different life in India, is disappointed with the superficiality of expatriate life here. In her search for “real India”, she wanders through its steamy, narrow gullies. Every chapter is a smorgasbord of descriptions — her entry into the season, the world outside that always seems to be on the edge of collapse and the army of cooks and tiny restaurants that she visits regularly.

While her book’s connecting thread is pulled forward by a chronologically climatic rope through the five seasons, the narration is not linear, but seems like a hastily packed jumble of descriptions, nuggets from history and thoughts. The book itself, being higgledy-piggledy, reflects the happy, terrific din of Delhi.

Many times you feel that there is a touch of almost colonial sneering that hangs over her descriptions of the city, its history and the cuisine. As she wanders around, her nouns are loaded with negative adjectives that bring out the grimy ambience with pungency. She piles on the phrases: “They’re appalled at the sight of glue-sniffing children, limbless beggars and the rows of day labourers hunched over their pots and paintbrushes waiting patiently, but usually in vain, for a few hours’ work.”

Just when you recoil and wonder why she tends to pan and focus so much on the filth and grime of the city, she immediately puts in the descriptions of emotional overload and the awareness that draw her there: “Dean and I would take off to Old Delhi whenever we needed a break from our dysfunctional farmhouse and lose ourselves in the crowds, a world and several centuries away... We would return sweaty and dehydrated but exhilarated, reminded of why we came to India in the first place.” You know then that she is straining to read between the lines, and trying to lift the blinds to catch and scribble the subtexts that explain the city.

The language is simple and straightforward, but you can taste and smell the food through the word screens. The dish, which has lured her into the streets like a lodestar, is dealt with lovingly and in detail: “I noticed the extraordinary texture of the kulcha — buttery, flaky shards, as if the finest Parisian feuilleté had been combined with a perfectly spiced nugget of soft potato. Then the chhole — melting, nutty, vibrant pulses — spicy yet soothing. A third element on the plate brought it all together — a sour tamarind sauce cutting brilliantly through the buttery bread...”

Delhi’s face changes with each season, and so do the dishes, the fruits and the clothes. And like a scrapbook, or blog, she scribbles her thoughts as randomly as they occur to her. Most of the scenes she paints capture realism, sometimes even verisimilitude.After a while you get used to her format and also manage to identify the method in the madness. You feel delighted to savour with her the taste of Ashok and Ashok’s mutton korma, Bade Mian’s kheer, the “Old and famous” jalebis, Shahjehanabad’s daulat ki chaat and many more dishes.

She is confident that she has found the key to the secret of the taste: “Home cooks and even professional chefs can never compete with a street food vendor who’s been making the same dish hundreds of times a day, often for decades...  who have been piping jalebis to perfection for decades, never deviating from their rhythm, never changing the heat of the stove, never leaving the coils in the bubbling ghee a moment too long.”She attempts to continuously glean the secret recipe that had passed on the taste and flavour of delectable food through the generations, but almost never succeeds. With a most prosaic ‘plonk’, many recipes that she claims could even be passable second hand, not original ones, drop like a whimper at the end of every chapter. 

Still, you read the descriptions and recipes for their connection to earlier eras. For instance, while one of them is picked straight from “Akbar’s recipes from the Ain-i-Akbari”, others dig into lower classes, such as: “One of Old Delhi’s best-known kulfi wallahs is in Sitaram Bazaar, where the Kuremal family has been in business for over a hundred years... that hark back to Persian feasts and emperors yearning for home.”The author’s rather hard descriptions in the beginning of the book change into soft, warm glow-words by the end. “Their new apartment was in a small, quiet lane of brightly painted buildings...”

She seems to have hit the nail and the nerve that connects the typical Delhi-lover with the metro when she ends with the reference to mutton korma and sheer kurma that “simply became the flavours of home.” You notice that at last she has slipped comfortably into the emotional connect that makes one love the mad city.

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