Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Review : Korma, Kheer & Kismet - Five Seasons in Old Delhi

I first heard of Pamela Timms, when I had just returned to India in December 2010. We were posted to Delhi and by February 2011, I had connected with local foodies and heard rave reviews of her Upar-Wali Chai's - the pop-up High Tea Parties - that she used to organise with her friend Laura. Sadly, by the time I could contact her, Laura left for the Netherlands and these pop-ups came to a full stop and I had to satisfy myself with drooling at the pictures on her blog - eat and dust.

Baking is something that is stressful for me as I am too much of a rebel at heart, especially when it comes to cooking. I'm more comfortable cooking by andaaz (touch, smell and feel), than in following exact measurements. I happily "adjust" recipes from blogs and recipe books when I cook for ourselves, but you see the potential for disaster when it comes to baking? Hence the need to be satisfied with drooling at pictures.

Pamela Timms is a Scottish Journalist who has been living in Delhi since the last 10 years. In 2005, her husband Dean moved to India as a foreign correspondent and she and their children accompanied him.

I saw so many similarities in Pamela's life as an expat in Delhi, with my life as an expat in Cairo and perhaps this is why I connected even more with the book. Except for the food, the monuments and the history of Delhi, there is little else that I love about the city (its just too aggressive, rude and in-your-face for me, I'm happier in a Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad or Mumbai than Delhi. Even living in Guwahati and Ahmedabad has been a 100 times more pleasant)

By a strange coincidence, the last book I read was : Ismail Merchant's - My Passage From India - and in that he recounts how one of the Rejection Letters that he received from a studio for their movie "Heat and Dust" (based on Ruth Prawer Jhabwalla Booker Prize Winning novel of the same name, the movie later won a BAFTA and was nominated for 7 others) was "we are not currently interested in your project of eat and dust" Mr, Merchant wasn't impressed with the production house getting the name of his movie wrong, but it has proved to be an apt name for Pamela's blog that is currently extremely popular.

Another strange connection between these 2 books is that Merchant Ivory productions, produced 3 movies based on books by E M Forster - A Room With A View, Maurice, and Howards End and Pamela was inspired by the heroine of another E M Forster Book - "A Passage to India" that she read shortly before she moved.

After a couple of disastrous rental accommodations (which made it difficult to cook) and the extra attention of being a fair skinned expat in Delhi (constantly besieged with "you want maid?", "you want driver?" and once even being bundled into an autorikshaw by policemen, when all she wanted to do was walk!), she found a refuge (from the stifling Expat Bubble of New Delhi) in Old Delhi.

To paraphrase Pamela, the people of Old Delhi were too busy with their business and their lives to give them any extra, unnecessary attention. Each one was caught up in their own routine and treated them as just another customer. Old Delhi was a sensory overload, but left them exhilarated. (I know the feeling: wandering around the Khan el Khalili in Cairo, in a long sleeved kurta and jeans, with my basic Arabic - as long as I didn't get into a conversation - I blended in as a local and was pretty much left alone to explore the area on my own whims.)

I completely empathise with and understand Pamela's experience of cooking Roast Chicken with Pasta and Tomatoes (an excellent recipe by the way), I've been through it myself.

In Egypt and Dubai (or even Mumbai or Bangalore), when I had a dinner party at home, I just had to visit one large hypermarket and get everything I needed from there. In Delhi, it was a trip to a large supermarket to buy staples, one to Godrej Nature Basket in Def Col to buy boneless meat, imported ingredients and cold meat, INA market for fresh fruit and vegetables and Jor Bagh Market for pork. This is manageable (except for the time taken to get from place to place) as long as you go with a fixed menu in mind and a list of ingredients, but a bit of a toughie for someone like me who looks at ingredients (which are the freshest and the most inspiring?)  and then decides what to cook. This turned out to be more of a mystery box challenge for every dinner party - as I never knew what I would get at the next shop and whether it would match with ingredients I had already picked, to make up a cohesive meal.

But this review is not about me, so to come back to this brilliant book :  Korma, Kheer and Kismet - Five Seasons in Old Delhi - is a a beautiful food memoir of Old Delhi / Puraani Dilli / sheher.  The book has history, culture, food, travel, recipes (just about 14-15) and personal stories all woven into each other. I absolutely LOVED it - if I ever get around to writing a book, this is the book that I would aspire to emulate, it has captured all my favourite interests.

I read this over last weekend and I loved it so much that I gave it to Brajesh and asked him to read it immediately and he also finished it at one shot. While he promised Rushina, that hers would be the first "food" book that he would read, he just read through the introductions of each chapter in "A Pinch of This, A Handful of That" and skimmed over the recipes. In "Korma, Kheer & Kismet" he again skimmed over the recipes, but as it is more memoir than recipe book, he felt that he had actually "read" it. He is now fixated on locating "Ashok & Ashok" on his next trip to Dilli.

As I was reading this book, I found that I was marking a few statements and underlining the names of restaurants and locations and other food writers mentioned in the book. Then I realised that this was the first time since college that I was doing this in a non-management book. (I hate having my books marked permanently in any way, I prefer to use post-its for the occasional note.) This is just a sign that I valued and wanted to emphasise all the new things that I learned in this book - even if it was just the name of a dhabha in Amritsar - but it serves the best cholle bhature in the world.

There is so much depth in this book

- a depth of knowledge of Indian food - Pamela is not just another "visitor" to India, penning a book after a 2 week holiday in the country, she has spent time, energy and effort into researching the topics that she writes about.
- a depth of research - into the families and people cooking up old favourites in this part of the City and into the history of food in general.
- a depth of passion and love - for food and the Old City.

My only issue with this book is the pictures. Being spoiled by the gorgeous technicolour / HD photos on her blog, the Black & White pictures in the book are a disappointment, some of them have become very blurry in grayscale. I understand that printing colour photos in a book, raises costs significantly, but I think a lot of them would have been better off as a link to a colour photo on her blog than as a grainy image in grayscale.

A lot of my Delhi friends have read this book over the long weekend and are already planning an eating expedition to the Old City, while also keeping Rahul Verma's tips for the monsoons in mind.

Charmaine O'Brien's - "Flavors of Delhi" is much more comprehensive and wide in its spectrum, but Pamela's book has a ton of passion - which clearly makes it a much more emotional and enjoyable book.

If you like (notice I don't say love) food and live in Delhi or are visiting Delhi, this is a book you MUST read. Its also a beautiful gift for someone moving to Delhi.

Rating : 4.5/ 5

1 comment:

Me! In words said...

Loved your review... my copy of the book should be here today... am so looking forward to it now


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