Pamela Timms is a woman to be admired – in possession of an enviable appetite that’s almost as capacious as her curiosity; able to cope in the conflicting climates of Scottish winters and Delhi summers; and more than able to wield words in such a way that you’re not reading her story: you’re living it.
Your feet will ache, your brow will sweat, your nose will alternately wrinkle and twitch, your ears will fill with incessant traffic noise punctuated by the sizzle of hot fat and the belches of pot-bellied old men after a bowl of the titular korma at Ashok & Ashok. You will devour every tale; but your book binge will be interrupted often as you’re forced to sate the hunger it all arouses.
‘Korma, Kheer & Kismet’ is Pamela’s own story, but not only her story. Unlike so many ego-driven authors, she doesn’t try to steal the spotlight; merely casting herself as a character of equal importance to the myriad vendors and their families that, for her at least, constitute the finest food culture of Old Delhi.
The fact that Pamela is a firangi matters – because it leads her to question everything about each new and unfamiliar food she encounters; in turn leading the Indian audience the book was published for to question the street food culture that, in many cases, is considered as little more than a fairly unremarkable part of the fabric of life.
There are recipes in ‘Korma, Kheer, and Kismet’ – Pamela’s own interpretations of the closely-guarded originals that have kept traders in brisk business for sometimes hundreds of years. But, as the author herself attests, there‘s much more to street foods than flavour. With the best will in the world, you can’t bring the bazaar experience into your kitchen. But, then, that’s what Pamela’s prose is for.
Is this really Old Delhi through the eyes of an outsider? It may initially seem so, but as you spend time in Pamela’s easy company, you’ll learn that she possesses x-ray specs that imbue her with true insight into her adopted city. What’s more, these glasses are not the rose-tinted, bottle-bottomed shades she says one would need in order to render them blind to the city’s shadier side.
But Pamela finds finesse in even less-salubrious surrounds. Many sensational street food specialities are originally born of desperation; a mere means of deflecting destitution. But with tenacity and time, items and establishments alike become institutions. You’ll eat close to the gutter, yet, Pamela tells us, the food will have you seeing stars.
Michelin stars? Perhaps not, but Pamela puts Gupta’s aloo tikki up there with Heston Blumenthal’s triple-cooked chips and says that the method of making Delhi’s delicate daulat ki chaat is nothing short of molecular gastronomy. The respect and esteem she shows the food and its creators is inspiring and humbling; rendering the most humble dish something worthy of the relish usually reserved for finicky fine dining.
Were one to walk Old Delhi with Pamela, one suspects they’d be dining just fine – with nary a starched tablecloth nor a condescending-yet-oleaginous waiter in sight. You’d likely wait for ages only to be herded onto a communal table where you could hardly hear yourself think, but the message would be loud and clear: street food is the preserve of the people.
And people like Pamela are helping preserve the culture by patronising the businesses without patronising the purveyors; merely eating and enjoying their wares and making others aware of the treats Old Delhi’s streets have in spades. Just like the street food it studies, ‘Korma, Kheer & Kismet’ is to be relished only by absolutely everybody.
In the spirit of Korma, Kheer & Kismet, I canvassed a collection of fine foodies to divulge their own ‘desert island’ Indian street food dish…
When I land in Bombay we go straight for breakfast at the Good Luck Cafe, by the very same bus stop where I used to alight from Bus 221 coming home as a child. It opens from 4am -11am and is nearly falling into the road. People simply walk in and walk out – no doors, just an old-fashioned scissor grill. We have kheema ghotala – also called kheema phried unda – minced mutton fried with egg.
In the late sixties, as a small boy, I would save up 5p (paisa) from ticket money saved by walking part of my bus and train journey. Once I had collected 25p, I got to eat kheema pao – a small-batch loaf ripped open and filled with a watery slather of mince. It was the sheer aroma, the effect in the mouth, the heat from the mutton, and the bread which you had to pull to break in your mouth that left lifelong memories that call us back.
Later as I began to earn a little money I could indulge in the kheema ghotala more, and now we seldom leave Bombay unless we’ve visited this place. It has no character or atmosphere. Service is still how it was; no fuss, just slamming the food down. Even the display units are a hundred years old, and stainless steel plates where once we had twisted aluminium ones.
Do NOT, I say do NOT look into the kitchen, or at the waiters cloth, or around you: just enjoy. Even now as I enter this place or pass it I get vivid flashbacks of getting down from the bus with my school bag slugged over my shoulders, fishing deep inside to fish out the five 5p pieces.
The father of the sons that run the place would say ‘Yay lay bhai kheema pao aa gaya’ – ‘Hello, Kheema Pao is here!’ They would all laugh at me and poke fun as they saw how much I relished it.
Naturally no one would recognise me today as no one from that era is there anymore and we moved away for so long. But now my wife Pervin and sons Jamsheed and Hormudz can’t do without the kheema ghotala either (the boys with ‘less chilli, please’), which is great. Since Hormuzd has a total Brit accent, he is now the one people stare at and perhaps laugh. Full circle, it is.
- The ‘Mr Todiwala’s Bombay’ cookbook contains a recipe for Cyrus’ own version of kheema ghotala. Click here to read a review.
Papri Chaat; and my favourite place to eat it is at Elco in Bandra, Mumbai, where they claim to have ‘safe street food’. I love the crunchy wheat flour discs topped with crushed spiced potatoes, sprinkled with freshly diced onions and vibrant coriander, drizzled with yoghurt and imli chutney. It’s sensational! The first bite takes me back to eating papri chaat as a child; each mouthful bringing a new taste sensation, helping me fall in love with street food and Mumbai.
- Chef and food writer Anjali’s first solo cookbook will be out in 2015. In the meantime, visit her website for recipes.
- Kalyan is also known as ‘The Knife’ and runs regular food walks in Mumbai off the back of his popular blog, Finely Chopped. Click here for more on his passion for phuchkas.
Need to read more fabulous Indian foodie books? Check out these posts:
- The best Indian foodie reads
- Mr Todiwala’s Bombay
- Tony Singh’s Tasty
- Books to take you on an Indian odyssey without leaving the sofa
- Bong Mom’s Cookbook
- The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles
- Book reviews