Sometimes a food memoir doesn’t just whet the appetite; it provides food for thought as well
Last night, I devoured Pamela Timms’ food memoir of Five Seasons in Delhi, evocatively if enigmatically titled Korma Kheer & Kismet, in one hungry gulp. Yes, it is a cracking good read, and Pamela’s adventures on the food trails in the grubby bylanes of Purani Dilli will have your gastronomic juices flowing (they certainly made me long for chole bhature at the unearthly hour of 3 am!) in no time at all. But that’s not the only reason I galloped through the book, like a hungry mare racing for the next expanse of green that she could get stuck into. It was also because, despite the many years I spent in the capital, the world that Pamela writes about seemed like a foreign land to me.
Like most New Delhi denizens I have rarely ventured into the chaos of Chandni Chowk. I certainly don’t know where the best Daulat ki Chaat is found, leave alone made (in highly unsanitary conditions; there’s a surprise for you!). I haven’t eaten the korma made by the Ashok and Ashok; in fact, I hadn’t even heard of the shop until I read the book. As a fully-certified jalebi lover, I am ashamed to confess that I haven’t tasted the ones served up at the somewhat literally-named Old and Famous Jalebi Wala. And while I have done the regulation rounds of Paranthe Wali Gali and eaten chaat on a couple of occasions from the roadside stalls in Old Delhi, I would be hard put to tell one food vendor from another.
I suspect that this is true of most New Delhi residents, if you discount those hardcore ‘foodies’ who go on things like ‘food walks’ in their neighbourhoods and beyond. But for the rest of us, Old Delhi is another country. We may pitch up there for some wedding shopping. We may make the occasional trip to show visitors a slice of ‘authentic’ Delhi. And we may drop in to Karims for some korma and biryani during Eid. But that’s about it.
Which is why it seems a little shaming that the person to show us the many delightful faces and places of Old Delhi should be an ‘outsider’ like Pamela Timms, a Scottish journalist, who accompanied her husband, Dean Nelson, as a ‘trailing spouse’ on his assignment as a foreign correspondent in India, and ended up making Purani Dilli her own (and like a canny Scot, got a book out of it, for good measure).
But I guess this is the way of the world, isn’t it? We traverse the globe looking for beauty, adventure, and yes, amazing food, all the while ignoring the treasures that are staring us in the face right where we live.
We save up for years to make a special trip to Florence to gaze at Sandro Boticelli’s masterpiece of Renaissance art, The Birth of Venus, in the Uffizi gallery, but we don’t take a bus ride to the National Museum in Delhi to see the magnificence of Mughal miniature paintings. We spend hundreds of Euros eating at Michelin-star restaurants in France, but we turn our noses up at the delights of regional cuisine available in our own country. We spend a fortune skiing on the slopes of Aspen and Gstaad but we ignore the beauty of Gulmarg, just a few hours away by plane. We marvel at the Grand Canyon in the States, gawp in astonishment at the Niagara Falls, but have probably never heard of the Valley of Flowers in the Himalayas or the Gersoppa or Jog Falls in Karnataka. We romp through the ruins of Pompeii, astounded by the picture of ancient Roman life it represents, but are unaware of the sites of the much older Harappan Civilisation in Gujarat, just a short train ride away.
It is a peculiar sort of tunnel vision, isn’t it, that allows us to obsess about faraway delights while being blind to the beauty all around us?
Not that I am one to talk. I have managed the singular feat of living in Delhi for decades on end without ever having seen the Humayun’s Tomb, the Bahai Temple, or even Dilli Haat. I have spent years in Mumbai without visiting the Elephanta Caves, and the only reason I have seen the Gateway of India is because it is handily situated right in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel. And in Calcutta, where I grew up, the only reason I visited the Indian Museum, was because of obligatory school trips.
And yet, even as I ignored the marvels situated in my neck of woods, I have visited an active volcano in New Zealand, gazed in wonder at the geysers of Iceland, gone truffle hunting in the Piedmont Valley in Italy, huffed and puffed my way up to Machu Picchu in Peru, gone on a safari in Africa, wine-tasted my way through Burgundy, and much, much more.
No, I don’t mean to boast, but just to point out that I know much more about the world at large, than I know about my own city, leave alone my own country. And it took Pamela Timm’s paean to Old Delhi to bring that home to me. She didn’t just give me a sniff of the delicious food on offer just a few Metro stops away; she also provided me with much food for thought. Korma Kheer & Kismet served up with a side of Contemplation; dig in.