Literary Review

Feeling the heat

Korma, Kheer & Kismet; Pamela Timms, Aleph, Rs.395  

Pamela Timms’ book is built around some cornerstones of Old Delhi’s street food, interspersed with history, both personal and of the area. There are the old markets — Sadar, Subhash Chowk, Sitaram Bazar, Paharganj, Chawri Bazar, Khari Baoli, Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid and others — and in each she picks one of the best known eateries and describes its food and atmosphere, then gives a recipe, sometimes approximate. Amritsar gets a small mention; of Baba Singh’s Amritsari kulcha. The opening captures Delhi’s 50° summer and the beauty of its trees, fixtures like Lodhi Garden walks, fruit sellers in saris and the little ingredients that make it Delhi. For a Dilli- wala, quite unremarkable. But for an outsider, maybe it has the same charm as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust. Heat, dust and diesel fumes are evocatively described, with the added bonus of flies in a meat shop.

Who goes to Sadar Bazar to buy meat? Hats off to the — I hope — sola- topee’d Scotswoman for venturing there, to the source of a dish she loved, and living to tell the tale. While recreating it in simple, charming prose, she must have relived it. As I read it in September and the weather outside is improving, Timms’ writing almost makes me feel the heat. She has a cook’s fine attention to detail: her description of the meat shop is real and has details like the marble slab, the scarred cut-off tree trunk serving as the butcher’s block. But an unforgivable blooper which the editor should have caught: “… (Ashok and Ashok) have always bought their meat from the Qureshis, a family of butchers… because they are confident the animals have been grass-fed and jhatka-slaughtered in accordance with Hindu tradition.” Jhatka? Hindu? Halal, surely. Old Delhi has a fine intermingling of the two communities, but this, the ritual of slaughter and cutting meat, is sacrosanct to each. Goggia Uncle’s ‘Ashok and Ashok’ Mutton Korma sounds delicious, though the preparation of pieces on-the-bone in gravy of curried mince is better known in Delhi as “ rarha meat”. Korma — or qorma — is another story altogether and I’m guessing that the clientele calls it simply “meat”.

Timms got away from her trips to Old Delhi with only a set of bruises, but a wealth of anecdotes. How many old shops have we seen decorated with a portrait — an old, touched-up photograph, of the founders “…a large, faded portrait of two unsmiling thickset men who looked as if they were keeping a beady eye on the proceedings”? I can almost see the twirled moustaches.

Her reminiscences about her youth are disarmingly honest and funny and explain why, though this book is local, her very openness comes from her exposure to the world and its cuisines. There’s a bit about her first trip to France, as a schoolgirl, her aversion to the food and her subsequent fashionable Francophilia triggered almost in equal parts by an attractive French teacher and the cool appeal of Existentialism.

Dessert has a few entries: kheer, jalebis and chikki, but pride of space has been given to Daulat ki Chaat, which some call nimish. There are recipes — some useful and interesting — and some too pedestrian to interest an Indian. Aloo ki tikki is a well-known old Delhi street snack, but, given the limitation that space must have placed on her, perhaps superfluous. On the other hand, there are Western recipes like Roast Chicken with Pasta and Tomatoes. Possibly good, but not what I expected to see here. And yet, while there is mention of kababs and biryani, there is no traditional mutton dish from the Jama Masjid area. She has stayed away from the beaten track, but apart from the famous places, there are several that should have been included — they are institutions known maybe only to locals and old-timers but their recipes are inimitable. No ishtu, no raan, no nargisi kofta. Timms does start with a note, saying that she “did not set out to write the definitive guide to every cart and shack … some readers will be disappointed not to find their own favourites here”. Fair enough, but is it fair to the rich fare of the area near the Masjid?

Photographs are black and white, few and blurred, but her writing paints a telling picture. Its high quality is matched by her intrepidness, her himmat. As they say, who is it that goes out in the noonday sun? And were it not for explorers like Timms, the reader would be the poorer.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 5:34:48 AM |

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