Most who pass through India’s capital city, New Delhi, also visit the snaking lanes of Old Delhi, too. This chaotic, crowded maze brims with street food whose recipes date back to the Mughal era.
Scottish journalist Pamela Timms landed here in 2005, along with her husband and three children. She’s spent the past years wandering the walled old city and its environs, sampling spicy mutton curry, softer-than-cotton milk cake and crisp, syrupy jalebis, all the while exploring the lives of its inhabitants. Not a bad life, we say!
In a conversation with OZY, over aloo-pooris and pickle in the neighborhood, Timms talks about similarities between Old Delhi and Scottish cuisine, the absence of women in those kitchens and why she’s never suffered from Delhi belly in the walled city.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
OZY: Are there similarities between Scottish food and the cuisine of Old Delhi? Or are they very different?
Pamela Timms: Not as different as you think. There’s a lot of deep fried food — fish and chips — so I’m used to quite heavy. There’s definitely a Celtic gene that’s disposed toward deep-fried food, that’s for sure. But in terms of flavors and seasoning, it’s completely different, and that’s what I love about eating in India generally and Old Delhi in particular. This food here — fried bread, pulses, vegetables and pickle — they all compliment one another perfectly.
You observe in your book the absence of female kitchen managers in Old Delhi. Why is that?
The women tend to be doing home cooking and looking after the children in the families that I’ve met. Also, this work is hard work. Physically, really hard work: You’re managing ingredients in big pans, huge pots of boiling oil and ghee, and it’s very laborious. For example, the daulat ki chaat … that is such hard work! I couldn’t even do with a mixer, and they do it for five, six hours every morning just like that [with their hands].
In Old Delhi today, wherever you look there is still someone making, mending or selling. Shoes are repaired with bits of recycled tyre; specks of silver are beaten into wafers of decorative leaf; dupattas are dyed in old oil drums using trays of powdered colours; saris and suits cleaned, stitched, embroidered. Creaking presses still churn out political pamphlets; men bind books by hand, hammer out metal pots.
— Excerpt from Pamela Timms’ Korma, Kheer and Kismet
Was being a foreigner a help or a hindrance in writing your book?
Maybe a bit of both … there was some resistance initially because with street food in India, the makers think that you won’t like to see it because it’s dirty. They work in very humble surroundings, not five-star kitchens. So they’re embarrassed about that, and they fear that you’ll criticize them.
But gradually, most people I’ve spoken to here — and I think this is a universal thing — people love to talk about food. It doesn’t matter where you go, but if you ask someone about their food, they’re going to be really happy that you love it. And people who do street food have huge amounts of pride in making that one thing, and if you like it, they’re going to be thrilled.
As for access, that really depended. Most of them gave me a certain kind of access; they were incredibly hospitable, and I’ve been to their homes many times and I count them as friends. But they would never show me where they make their syrup or their butter.
Have you ever had Delhi belly?
Not even once? How did you manage that?
Nope. I have been sick [after] eating in five-star-hotel buffets … I’ve never been sick eating street food. Part of the reason is that I’ve developed a strong resistance. But I also think that street food is not as deadly as people make you think, because, by definition, it’s made on the street. So you can’t store it overnight; whatever they have, they sell, and when they’re sold out, they go home to start again the next day.
Aayush Soni is a journalist and glutton living in New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @AayushSoni.
Why you should care
Pamela Timms makes Indian food sound even yummier than it is.