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Korma, Kheer & Kismet- Pamela Timms

“I…wonder if my happiness levels were directly related to the amount of time I spent thinking about, preparing and eating food. ”

Even though I’ve lived three years in Delhi, I still only fondly remember my one month in Delhi when I was doing an internship with my best friend in Okhla. I was 19 years old: I had just moved out of home for the first time and had started studying engineering- which actually meant doing everything but studying. Shriya and I spent two hours daily at the internship and then we would go out and explore. There are only two things about Delhi that I love- the street food and the metro that would take us to these streets. This book encapsulates parts of our food adventures down old Delhi and made me miss her more than ever.

This memoir pulls me along into this journey of all five seasons of Delhi exploring food with Pamela, living with her family, her expat life and her love for food in general. I relate to a lot of what she writes. My family has always been expats to everywhere we have lived. Unlike her, we only had three years to experience each country rather than spending a good ten years. When we shifted to Delhi, I had only lived abroad my entire life. It came as a cultural shock to have come back to a land that was supposed to be ‘home’, to experience terrible harsh weather (we had arrived in June, and those of you who know, know) and to be have been obliged to know cultural nuances that I didn’t know of. We had shifted from, Geneva. I remember the cold breeze, the long trams and the window of my room over-looking the Alps and the famous Jet D’eau. I remember the plane ride to Delhi, I was deeply upset and didn’t want to start my life and new school again. And there I was in one of the most crowded places in the world, where everyone looked like me but I seemed to be the odd one out- because of my American accent (from International Schools) and my lack of knowledge in Hindi.

One of my fondest memories of living in Delhi was when we used to go visit Chandi Chowk and the Jama Masjid area- this was a place I felt did belong. It was just food at me. I remember my parents talking me on one of my birthdays just for the food. Those metro rides were always filled with anticipation of all the things we would eat. We had some favourites already. The Aaloo Tikki wala, Jalebis, kulfis all the things Pamela mentions so fondly. I remember, going back revising years later with Shriya and looking at her face when she tried all of these things for the first time. I still remember her face from when we shared one Jalebi fried in deep flavourful ghee, the raab oozing out of and spilling in our tiny paper plates.

“The philosopher Dagobert D. Runes once observed that ‘people travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home’, but for us, nowhere was this less true than in Old Delhi, where absolutely nothing reminded us of home.”

And so Pamela introduces her to time spent the small bustling alleys of Sheher, which she explains to us was the name of Old Delhi, when the city was surrounded by walls and everything outside was a jungle. We begin with her her deep and long fascination with her favourite restaurant Ashok and Ashok. (Which from my quick Zomato search looks like heaven- why have I not been to this place before?) She wanted the history as well as the recipe for their korma- something I dare never even ask for. It’s a known fact- you’ll never get it and even if you do the magic ingredient will always be missing. Her journalist skills are something therefore, I must admire. She shows the reader her research, bits from blogs, interviews by Rahul Verma and even twitter. Some leads get her to a story in which she gets to know that it was man called Goggia Uncle who had created this great recipe and given it to Ashok and Ashok who seemed to have won their restaurant through a game of cards. Upon writing this new development on her blog, a comment from the son of Ashok- (I found this piece absolutely hilarious) who accused her of saying that her dad was a gangster (thought it was not implied) on the blog, and told her to meet her at his house.

“LOOK! LOOK! TELL ME!’ Amit commanded. ‘DOES MY FATHER LOOK LIKE A GANGSTER?’ My experience of gangsters, admittedly, is limited to a box set of The Sopranos but what I saw was a man who wouldn’t be out of place playing the baddie on a TV drama. ”

This was just one of the many food undercover missions Pamela seems to have gone through, some went to a rather extreme of bribing and waking up at 3 in the morning. Not only is food an important narrative in this book, there is a constant sense of time passing. The weather, of course, the seasons bringing its reign of festivals but also the political climate of Delhi at the time- we see a very objective factual stance of the Anna Hazare protests and how life had suddenly changed in Delhi for that brief moment in time. Her personal life too is important, we see how she mentions the sadness of her eldest child leaving the house and how it was difficult for her to adjust. Throughout reading this, I thought how my mother would resonate with this book more than me. Being the wife of an expat did mean “tailing around, shopping and lunch” I remember the sadness she felt when my brother left the house for college. I sometimes feel that still has never gone.

There is so much research, hours of strolling around the streets in the blazing hot Delhi sun that makes this a valid and fantastic read. It’s so honest- at times I felt that Pamela was Indian too, like the rest of us reading this book. Her nostalgia felt like ours. Her words in Hindi (never translated) made her stand out. She documented her relationship with Delhi, its culture, its history, its people and most importantly the relationship all of us share with the food from Delhi. She understood.

“There was no epiphany, just a gradual realization that the magic of a great street food dish is not in any secret ingredient but in the formidable ‘haath ki baat’ of the generations of men who have made it. Jamaluddin may have said ‘it’s all from the blessings of Allah’, but I think the master kheer wallahs and the many other great cooks in Old Delhi had, to paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell, reached greatness in their field at least partly by doing the same thing 10,000 times. I could never hope to recreate their dishes simply by watching them make it once. And even if I had the exact recipes for all the food I had eaten, there would always be one crucial ingredient missing—the actual experience of eating it on the street.”

As much as I love eating my mom’s home made gol guppas, I miss stepping out of the metro with Shriya, skipping the golguppa chaat wala right in the corner (would not recommend- even though there is a trail of people lining up for it) and going heading down to Kinari Bazar. The slight crowd at 3 in the afternoon and the boiling Delhi summer heat, the smell of the salty and sultry pani, the sound of the papdi of the gol guppa being crunched upon by various uncles in line still make my mouth water. With my food friend beside me, I know that this is just the start of the many places we have decided to eat today, and the day is definitely not over. Pamela is right to conclude, there is more to street food then just flavour or the recipes, it’s an experience.

#Cookbooks #IndianFood #kormakheerandkismet #Pamelatimms

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