Book Review: Korma Kheer and Kismet by Pamela Timms

Korma Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms

Rating: 4 out of 5

At the beginning of her book Korma Kheer and Kismet, writer Pamela Timms declares that she wants (no, she needs) the recipe for the mutton korma at Ashok and Ashok. That sparks off her street food adventure in Delhi and beyond. She samples jalebis, daulat ki chaat and even chhole kulche in Amritsar. She loves them all and must know how to recreate these dishes at home.

Her approach to the mission? A direct and tireless one. She asks vendors for their recipes, takes help from Delhi foodies, gets invited to people’s homes and even breaks bread with the families of vendors and food business owners.

Korma Kheer and Kismet book cover

Since most of my food-related reading has been restricted to mostly blogs and cookbooks, I was doubtful if a longer piece of food writing such as Korma Kheer and Kismet would sustain my interest. Yes, it did.

The result of the author’s efforts is a book that is a delicious, irresistible and natural culmination of her quest. Her expedition leads her to old Delhi, where she encounters the city’s signature dishes, from kheer to jalebis to daulat ki chaat (which I had never heard of before).

The journey to discovery

Throughout the narrative, Timms weaves in the history of the city, bits of her personal life and the stories of the people she meets. Through these experiences, she discovers the food culture of the city, and as a side dish, the Indian ethos.

The writing is subtly humourous and remarkably descriptive. The pages come alive with people and food. You can smell the fresh jalebis, hear the sizzle of a tawa, feel the warmth of a stove and enjoy the camaraderie and Indian chaos on the streets.

With the author, your mouth waters at the all-season favourite aloo tikkis, you admire the grittiness of the vendors who produce the same food day after day to the exact flavours, and you giggle in understanding as Timms scrambles around Delhi to gather ingredients for a single dish.

And along with the author, you feel a sense of wonder about your own extraordinary yet commonplace food traditions. Timms writes:

I looked hard at the ‘kitchen’. How did such a divine dish come from such unpromising surroundings? How did that threadbare old man tossing dough manage to produce perfect flaky pastry in temperatures which fluctuate from zero to fifty degrees, when everyone from Auguste Fauchon to Nigella Lawson knows that you can only make good pastry if your kitchen, ingredients and hands are constantly as cool as a slab of marble?

Serving fresh

Timms has brought a fresh perspective to Indian street food. Street food is no more just the common man’s daily fare (cheap and delicious), but as an essential ingredient of Delhi’s diverse and historic culture.

It’s refreshing to see food writing that steps away from fancy restaurants, foreign-trained chefs, and tough-to-find ingredients. Some of the recipes in the book may never work for me (how can I get the Delhi winter in Mumbai for the perfect daulat ki chaat?), but the recipes Timms has sourced are very close to the “real thing”. (As an expert Punjabi cook, my mom agrees the kulcha recipe is as genuine as it could be).

Toward the end of the book, the central question remains—what about the mutton korma recipe? Timms hunts far and wide for the true story behind the place, and the authentic recipe. Does she find it? Now that is a question of kismet.

Laced with humour and woven with anecdotes and things quintessentially Indian, like family rivalries, filmy connections and friendly hosts, Korma Kheer and Kismet is much more than a food account.

Toward the end you do lose track of some of the characters, but the book is a delightful read and perfect for those unfamiliar with Delhi food, familiar with Delhi food, food lovers, food haters, and everyone else.

Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi

Author: Pamela Timms

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

Available on: Amazon.in