How to serve up trotters… and the best of eggs…
By Anoothi Vishal
“By the way, Chandra can now cook the perfect paya,” said uncle-in-law, who can be quite the intimidating editor with a fondness for all things food and French. Chandra is his cook, an affable pahari lady who has withstood perfection in the kitchen for almost two decades. No mean feet, I say. Having had some really terrible paya in old Delhi— notwithstanding nostalgia, few eateries around Jama Masjid are quite the same; most now dish out chalu versions of old recipes—and not being terribly keen on trotters, I didn’t know what to say but being a polite foodie, felt that something was required to be said. So as we hugged adieu, I told uncle in typical Dilliwalla (insincere) fashion that he must call me over to sample his paya recipe one day.
One day turned out to be the next day with the entire family having been called over and some Europeanised members (such as the husband) wondering whether it was indeed paya or paella that the uncle meant to go down with a fine glass of red wine! Since I had suggested kulchas as convenient breads to go with the stew instead of the traditional khameeri roti or fermented wheat bread, the poor man’s breakfast on cold wintery mornings of Shahjahanabad, I was pretty sure about what we were about to get. Nevertheless, if others wanted to bet, who was I to disagree?
Of course, I was right. (When am I not?). After listening to some Indian classical music incomprehensible to philistine members of the family, gaping at an Amrita Sher-gil, recently acquired by uncle, and indulging in some jurno gossip (what? All the scandals one heard about and dismissed as exaggerations were true!), it was out turn to fuss over the big event that night. Chandra came in bearing a tray with a bowl of paya— and many accompaniments in smaller bowls all around it that reminded all of us, rather incongruously, of khao suey.
As it turned out, uncle, has hit upon a winning formula for serving this up at home.
First the accompaniments: Silvery strands of ginger, green chillies with a bite, finely chopped, generous wedges of lemon, raw onions, cut…
The service: Each person was supposed to add whatever they liked to the stew. I recommend a huge pinch of ginger and green chillies and a few drops of lemon juice can work wonders too.
The paya: Unlike the original dish which is simmered overnight in huge pots (so that the gelatine from the bones seeps out…), this homemade version took just 4 whistles of the pressure cooker! Uncle added not just the bony bits but also some meaty ones which made the dish much more acceptable as a party piece. And, of course, he followed my suggestion of teaming it up with kulchas, easily available at Defence Bakery in the neighbourhood.
No tar on top: The thing about eating in old Delhi is that they will top your paya (or nihari) with a layer of fat floating on top. For the modern stomach (and waist), that is hardly appetizing. Uncle’s version uses minimal oil and basic seasoning with whole garam masala. Period.
So, what about paella, you may ask? Since I won the bet, it was only fitting that the next night, we go out for some genuine paella. And the best place for it is undoubtedly Sevilla at the Claridges. Better than the stuff in Spain. It comes in a big wok-like dish and is browned on top which makes all the difference.
Finally, omlettes: Uncle is researching on omlettes, he says. And there are more than 70 varieties recorded in tomes, primarily French (because they were the first anyway to jot down all those recipes and cooking methods). Omlettes didn’t seem to have journeyed from one particular country to the other, says uncle (though others contend that it may have originated in the middle-east). Instead, it is uncle’s contention that they came up at different places at different times because of the versatility of eggs as an ingredient. But apart from those made from ostrich eggs and others with lobster in them, baked Italian frittatas and Spanish tortillas and the magnificent fluffy omlettes, folded but not cooked on the other side, revered in cooking lore, what I find interesting are middle-eastern omlettes. These are called kokoo in Iran and include even such vegetables as chopped cauliflower!
My best omlette: My nani used to do one with green chillies and onions, using aslee ghee, in Bareilly. But even uncle agrees that what we had from the erstwhile Express dhaba on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, Delhi’s Fleet Street, was probably the most memorable. And, oh! Mughlai paranthas at the Clarks in Lucknow, which is omlettes spread over paranthas.