Pamela Timms on her forthcoming book and why Old Delhi is her refuge
When Pamela Timms arrived in Delhi in 2005 with her husband and kids, she had hoped to be able to immerse herself in the city. Instead, she found herself contained within the sanitised, and often suffocating, bubble that life as an expat forces upon people. She needed a way out, and was relieved to find it in Old Delhi.
It became her refuge; she would take off frequently, only to return “sweaty and dehydrated but exhilarated, senses overloaded, reminded of why we came to India in the first place”. In her forthcoming “Korma, Kheer and Kismet” (Aleph), a record of a year of culinary jaunts, Pamela tells us why Old Delhi matters to her.
“The streets, the people, the chaos — you can’t help being overwhelmed by it. Some people don’t like that but it's still my favourite place to go. Because there’s always something new,” she says, as we settle down for lunch in Lodi – The Garden Restaurant. “People talk about how Delhi and India are changing. You just have to go to Old Delhi to see how untouched it is…there is a kind of parallel world in Old Delhi that you don’t read about very often, certainly in the West. You think everyone’s in a mall or in a call centre.”
We are seated in the atrium of the restaurant located on the fringes of Lodi Garden, where, without much deliberation, we place our orders. She chooses the Greek salad with fresh cucumber, bell peppers, greens with olives and feta cheese, in preparation, she says, for the holiday to Greece she’s about to embark on soon, while I choose the grilled chicken salad with sesame and coconut strips. “They have got a fantastic location…They do nice music things as well,” she says, referring to the concerts the restaurant frequently holds.
While Pamela has always been an “obsessive eater”, she confesses to never having thought about a career in food until she came to Delhi. While she had worked as a journalist in her native Scotland, it was Delhi that transformed her into a food writer. She will be familiar to readers through her blog, her columns in Mint, as well as her pop-up tea party experiment, Upar Wali Chai.
Resuming the conversation, she says she finds the timelessness of Old Delhi reflected in its food. “People are trying their hand at all sorts of different cuisine in Delhi, but in Old Delhi you still have that one guy making his one thing that his dad made, his granddad made...and that’s how you become really good at making something,” she observes. “Chefs are good, but they’re not brilliant at everything they make. But those guys in Old Delhi — if you want aloo tikki, you are going to go to the guy who has been making it every day for 30 years. And that’s unusual enough in the world of food. It’s a real treasure in the modern times.”
The book unfolds as a series of journeys to the storied shops of Old Delhi — Chaina Ram, Ashok and Ashok — as well as the homes of strangers and well wishers, where Pamela valiantly tries to prise out recipes, through coaxing, cajoling, and on one occasion, a hefty bribe. Although frequently defeated in her endeavour, she provides an approximation of the recipes of, among others, Kuremal ki kulfi, named after the family that has been making kulfi in the old city since 1908, the famous mutton korma of Ashok and Ashok, Kumar brothers’ daulat ki chaat and Bade Mian’s kheer.
Although the book is guided by the quest for recipes, Pamela was clear that hers was never going to be a recipe book. “I always wanted to write something about the way I felt about Old Delhi because it’s been one of the most important experiences of my life,” she says.
Through these recipes, Pamela also details an endlessly fascinating world, full of “warm welcomes and family feasts”.