THE CREATIVE LIFE: PAMELA TIMMS
(Introducing a new section on the site: an occasional series of interviews with people whose writings/ art/ music/ creative work have inspired me.)
Pamela Timms is the author of Korma, Kheer and Kismet (Aleph Book Company), which covers five seasons of the sizzling love affair between her and Old Delhi’s street food. She used to host the very popular Uparwali Chai events in Delhi, and blogs about her food adventures at eatanddust.com. Pamela is a self-taught cook and baker; she lives in Delhi and spends part of the year in her native Scotland.
Pamela on Twitter: twitter.com/eatanddust
- When did you realise that you were building a life around the love of food—as a blogger, a cook, and now a writer? How did your relationship with food change in each decade, and could you briefly share how it shaped each decade?
My life has always revolved around food; it’s the only life I know. The family I grew up in had very firm views on food and generally discussed the options for dinner at breakfast time. I didn’t do a huge amount of cooking with my mother (she, like me, was a control freak in the kitchen) but I did watch her like a hawk and she definitely taught me the importance, in so many ways, of eating well.
The main attraction of studying French at university was the year I spent in Paris ‘studying the language’. What I did in fact was an in-depth study of the city’s markets and patisseries of which the vast collection of tent-like clothes I brought back to the UK at the end of the year was ample proof.
The cook book my Parisian landlady gave me when I left probably kick-started my home cooking and led me to devour hundreds of cookbooks and spend most of my twenties foisting my efforts on long-suffering friends and family.
But it wasn’t until I came to live in India almost a decade ago that I began to realise that it might be possible to do something meaningful (I hesitate to call it a ‘career’) with food, first through my blog and other food writing and pop-up tea parties. Korma, Kheer and Kismet was the ultimate opportunity to express my love of food, and of course the street food and people of Old Delhi.
- What would your ideal week be like? How much time, for instance, would you spend in spice and general markets, how much time with people who are equally enthusiastic about food, and how much time cooking for your family (and lucky friends)?
I usually go to the market near my New Delhi home at least twice a week. I like to see, touch and smell everything I’m going to cook with. I also like to see what’s in season and discover the new fruits and vegetables that are increasingly being grown locally. I recently discovered Ooty-grown blueberries and that made my week!
If I’m in Old Delhi I always lug back bags full of spices and unusual seasonal produce that you don’t always see in New Delhi as well as tubs of kheer and kilos of jalebis.
It’s important for my sanity to cook everyday, I feel un-moored if too much time passes out of the kitchen. In particular, if ever I’m anxious or feeling down, an afternoon baking usually sorts me out.
Happily my family shares my obsession with food and I love to have greedy friends around the dinner table so no amount of cooking is ever too much.
Equally, unless I spend a certain amount of time each day writing, I lose all equilibrium.
- So many of the experiences you describe in Korma, Kheer and Kismet are not just about what’s on the plate—the deliciousness of chola-bhatura or the tenderness of Uncle Goggia’s korma—but about the lives of the families who live in Old Delhi. What were some of the ways in which tracking this most basic of things—good, cheap, local food—changed your relationship with the city?
In the beginning, long before I’d even thought of writing a book, I was simply overwhelmed by the range of food on offer in India and set about trying whatever I could whenever I could. Then when I began to take a close interest in the food of Old Delhi I discovered I was welcomed into the lives of the people who make it. The more time I spent watching and talking to the vendors, the more I started to understand what the food represents. Most of the iconic Old Delhi dishes are rooted in the often dramatic family histories of the people who make them – migration, displacement, longing for home – as well as the turbulent history of the area itself. This, I think, is one of the reasons the food is so satisfying – these are dishes that were often first made to soothe and comfort homesick migrants.
On a personal level, the food of Old Delhi gave me an extremely privileged and intimate connection with the area.
- Is there a direct link between cooking and creativity? In your life, and perhaps also in the lives of the chefs and food writers you admire the most?
I definitely believe so. In some ways, cooking is the ultimate transformational experience. In baking in particular, you take half a dozen individually unpromising ingredients – flour, eggs, sugar, butter – and an hour later you have a cake!
- You read so much in the way of food writing and food histories. Which books/ writers have meant the most to you, or have opened up creative possibilities for you?
Anything which deals with the truth that food is about more than what you put in your mouth – it’s about family, community, migration, exile, loss and new connections.
I was very inspired by the ‘poet of the appetites’ MFK Fisher, the great American food writer. Of course, she would have been a great writer no matter what she had written about but I love that she chose food. I particularly admire the way she experiences the world through what it eats – in almost every sentence she has something profound to say about the role of food in our lives.
I also love everything written by the great food writer Claudia Roden, particularly her Middle Eastern books and her wonderful book on Jewish food. She is extremely good on the way in which certain dishes link you to home, to your community.
Nigella Lawson’s early work was also surprisingly profound (although nowadays she’s much better known for pouting on TV). This, for instance, is her writing in ‘Feast’(published, incidentally, after the death of her first husband) about eating in the immediate aftermath of losing a loved one:
‘I am not someone who believes that life is sacred, but I know it is very precious. To turn away from that, to act as if living is immaterial, that what you need to sustain life doesn’t count, is to repudiate and diminish the tragedy of the loss of a life.’
- If there were three (okay, six) places you could visit or culinary experiences you could have anywhere in the world, what would you most want to do in the next few years? (This includes markets you’d like to spend time in, restaurants you’d like to eat at/ run, chefs or food experts you’d like to learn from, anything else that appeals to you.)
At the moment the geographical areas I’m most drawn to in terms of food are the Middle East and Scandinavia. But I wouldn’t say no to trips to Thailand or anywhere in southern Europe. But actually, wherever you go you can find great, surprising food if you look hard enough.
- Which books would you recommend to anyone who’s just beginning to explore cooking/ food writing for themselves?
There is a whole industry which feeds off the angst of struggling writers – most of it not worth reading. Two I would recommend are ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King and ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves ‘ by Lynne Truss
To study the craft of food writing I would start with anything and everything by the greats – people like MFK Fisher, Calvin Trillin. They are great writers who just happen to write about food.
To succeed at writing anything you have to read, read, read – anything and everything that inspires you to write. Personally, I never fail to be inspired by Alice Munro, Philip Roth and Raymond Carver – whenever I read their work I feel I have to write. Their work shows powerfully how we can better understand the world around us – the people, the relationships, the food -through words on a page.