KORMA, KHEER & KISMET: FIVE SEASONS IN OLD DELHI
By Pamela Timms
Aleph; Rs 395
STAR RATING: ****
By Sourish Bhattacharyya
WHEN I was invited to an Ashok & Ashok mutton korma lunch by a friend a few years ago, I could smell what awaited me as I made the laborious climb up to his Gole Market barsati office. Whiffs of garam masala, browned onions and desi ghee gyrated like Madhuri Dixit around my nostrils, teasing me to add spring to my steps and dive for the lunch box being opened in my friend's office.
The gustatory extravaganza that followed piqued my curiosity about the Sadar Bazar duo, whose name sounded uncannily like a legal partnership parodied in a Charles Dickens novel. As I tried desperately to shake off a korma-induced slumber upon my return to my place of work, I typed in the names 'Ashok & Ashok'.
The first words that popped up on my computer screen were: 'Ashok & Ashok: A Taste of The Sopranos in Old Delhi'. "Oh, another blog post by a memsahib, a 'trailing wife'!" I murmured as I trained my droopy eyes on the words in front of me. I ate those words and lost track of time as Ashok & Ashok introduced me to the fascinating world of Eat & Dust, Pamela Timms's blog on her "food adventures in India," brimming over with wit, insights and recipes of the iconic dishes that define our street food experience.
As I finish reading Timms's first book, which opens with a racy whodunit centered around the mystery surrounding the origins of Ashok & Ashok, I can't help admiring the ease with which the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin, his American translator and goddess of food writers M.F.K. Fisher, Charles Baudelaire, E.M. Foster and Anna Hazare meld together with the flies, the open drains, the searing heat and the glorious food of Old Delhi in this page-turner on our city of quirks and kormas.
"My first mistake, like Adela's in Foster's novel, was assuming I would blend effortlessly into Indian life," writes Timms, a Scottish journalist who arrived with her husband, Dean Nelson, South Asia Editor of The Daily Telegraph, in 2008. Effortlessly or not, Timms has delved deep into secrets that no author before her has attempted and put together a lip-smacking repertoire of recipes (more in her blog than in the book), starting with the Amritsari kulchas of the All India Famous (formerly 'Fames'!) Kulchas on Maqbool Road, Amritsar, to Sita Ram Diwan Chand's Chana Bhatura and Kuremal's Falsa Kulfi, to the jalebis of Dariba Kalan's Old & Famous Jalebi Wala, members of whose family are as uncommunicative as they are busy counting cash.
Gifted with a visual writing style, Timms takes us on Technicolor tour of Delhi, not limiting entirely to the older parts of the city. Her cast of neighbourhoods extends from the tony Vasant Vihar, where she settles into the life of an expat memsahib -- and where my favourite stopover for food books (courtesy of its Le Cordon Bleu-trained owner), Sheviks Toys (it started life as a dry cleaners' shop!), gets a cursory mention (albeit not for the books!) -- to the chiaroscuro confusion of Matia Mahal, where the Rahmatullah Hotel continues to serve hope and nutrition to the poor.
Along the way, Chittaranjan Park, Kashmere Gate and Civil Lines jostle for attention with the sights and smells of Haveli Azam Khan, famous for its Mota Biryaniwala; Gali Qasim Jan, home to the Fresh Corner bakery, which still sells macaroons made in the Anglo-Indian style with desiccated coconuts; Raghu Ganj, where Jain Coffee House's fruit sandwiches just don't seem to go out of fashion; Chitli Qabar's Diamond Bakery, which makes the city's best rusk waiting to be dipped into your early morning chai; and the Chandni Chowk-Jama Masjid quadrilateral, which has seen a return of its glory days, thanks to the Metro.
As we join Timms on her leisurely yet purposeful pursuit of our city's culinary wealth, we are introduced to people with interesting stories to share, such as Amit Arora (son of one of the two Ashoks of the mutton korma fame); Pran Kohli, owner of Sita Ram Diwan Chand; and Jamaluddin Siddique, the elder of the two brothers who run the famous Bade Mian's kheer shop (he's also the present occupant of the house in which Mumtaz Jahan Begum Dehlavi -- known to the world as Madhubala -- was born in 1933.
A couple of years back, I organised a couple of Chandni Chowk tours for Delhi Gourmet Club members. One of the tours ended at Chaina Ram Sindhi Confectioners, outside Fatehpuri Masjid. One of the present owners of the shop famous for its Karachi halwa is the former Hindu College and Delhi Ranji Trophy cricketer, Hari Gidwani. Watching with obvious bemusement the palpable excitement of our group, Gidwani said, "If Delhiites rediscover Chandni Chowk, it's good for our business -- and for the city."
Timms has rekindled our sense of wonder about our city -- and has given Purani Dilliwallahs such as Gidwani one more reason to treasure their heritage.
This book review first appeared in Mail Today on August 17, 2014.
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers