Look at this, I told the wife while scrolling through Twitter, your friend who has had covid-19 twice is advocating coconut water and—get this—paya soup as recovery agents.
She looked at me witheringly, as she often does.
“I was the one who suggested it to him,” she said. “That’s what your mother recommends when anyone falls ill.”
My mother was listening in. “I actually recommend chicken soup,” she said, confirming, however, that paya did indeed have curative properties.
Now, I can remember eating paya, or trotters—psst, that’s hooves—very often when I was a child in Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi). It was traditional food at breakfast time or after sickness in the steaming heart of the Deccan. Paya is a culinary legacy that evolved through the eras of the Bahmani kings and the nizams of Hyderabad (Gulbarga was once part of the nizam’s dominions).
There is little doubt that bone broth or paya soup—whatever you want to call it—is nutritious. Bones, their cartilage and the tissues covering them are storehouses of vitamins and other nutrients, including iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium and collagen. Paya could help, the scientific record suggests, protect joints, may stem osteoarthritis, reduce inflammation and even help sleep.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact nutritive benefits to a recovering covid-19 patient, it is clear enough that paya offers wide-spectrum protection, as much if not more than other popular methods—such as the watery decoction of herbs called Kashaya or yoga—popularised by India’s current vegetarian-friendly government.
Let’s face it, paya is just so much more attractive than Kashaya to people like the Halarnkars.
Lately, paya has re-entered our lives. Every Wednesday, I find myself sandwiched between the youngest and oldest women in the family, in the airy, high-ceilinged, wooden-floored, 135-year-old dining hall of the Bangalore Club, where the tables were at a safe distance from each other even before the pandemic.
The oldest, invariably, picks spicy keema and chapatis, and the youngest, my 10-year-old, always opts for the day’s special: appam and paya. Around us, women in saris wash down their pork fry and sizzlers with draught beer. This is the heart of old, colonial Bengaluru, where time slows down, a register still shows that a certain Lt W.L.S Churchill skipped town without paying ₹13 as club fees, and traditional favourites like liver on toast persist.
But paya, alas, had vanished from our family menus. The emphasis on healthier food and the dwindling acceptance for spare parts of animals has greatly restricted modern culinary options. Somewhere along the line, brain, gurda-kapura (look it up), liver, kidney, hearts and other organs disappeared from our rich and varied meals.
Last year, I was happy to see how those traditions endure in the heart of the deep south. It was in Madurai that I was treated to dosa and kidney for breakfast, brain and biryani for lunch and spleen and idli for dinner. It was in Madurai that I first saw paya being prepared for the kitchen, the hooves singed of hair in a fire kept alive by a goat-skin bellows. The city around the great Meenakshi Amman temple is a smorgasbord of traditional cuisine.
I thought the week was a particularly good time to re-establish contact with tradition. Since it is Ramzan, I intend to trot off to our local Royal Albert Bakery and buy their limited-edition brain puffs, made only during the holy month. It was with this new-found resolve to revisit the old days that I got six goat legs from the local slaughterhouse and prepared to make my first paya.
My mother could not find her recipe for trotters so I did the next best thing: YouTube. A cousin sent me an interpretation by someone called Sonia Barton. As always, I watched it for general guidance and modified it to family tastes: less oil, more vinegar (it coaxes nutrients from bones, I read somewhere) and fewer chillies. I knew that trotters took a long time to cook, but 10 whistles of a pressure cooker?
In the event, as the pandemic worsens, I feel like we are all in a game of Russian roulette. Everyone I know either has covid-19 or has lost a loved one or is running around for oxygen or a hospital bed. So, take every precaution—including paya.
Half kilo trotters, washed and cleaned
2 onions, sliced thinly
2 tomatoes plus 1 green chilli, puréed
Two-and-a-half tsp ginger-garlic paste
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
Half tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp vegetable oil
4 tbsp yogurt
Quarter cup white vinegar
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
Salt to taste
Whole spices: 2-inch piece cinnamon, 2 large cardamoms, 3 small cardamoms, 4 cloves, 1 tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp aniseed, 7 peppercorns, 1 bay leaf
Place the trotters in a pressure cooker, add whole spices, salt and enough water to cover the bones. Pressure-cook for eight whistles, then reduce flame and cook for three more whistles. When the pressure dissipates, open, strain out and keep aside water, discard the whole spices.
In a wok, heat oil and fry onions until golden brown. Remove three-fourths of the onions and purée with yogurt. Add ginger-garlic paste to the remaining onion and sauté, drizzling in vinegar if it begins to stick. Add Kashmiri chilli powder, turmeric and coriander powders. Sauté, and use more vinegar if required. Add the puréed tomatoes with green chilli, cover and cook for 10 minutes until oil separates. Add the bone broth. Stir in the yogurt-onion paste. Add more salt if required and a little water to get the consistency you want. Add the trotters, cover and simmer for another 10 minutes. Garnish with fresh coriander.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.