Few things can warm you up on a cold winter morning like a steaming bowl of mutton paya—a stew of lamb (or goat) trotters, cooked on a lazy flame for hours together. Slow-cooking coaxes the robust flavours and natural gelatine in the trotters into the delicately-spiced broth. The result is a viscid stew steeped in umami richness and comforting warmth, best mopped up with naan or fluffy kulchas.
Be it unassuming eateries around Nakhoda Mosque in Kolkata’s Chitpur area, street stalls in Old Delhi or Bhopal’s Chatori Gali, winter mornings see people queueing up for a breakfast of piping hot paya—mutton or beef—ladled out of giant degs that have simmered on a charcoal flame through the night. And not just for the promise of gustatory pleasure.
Known for its warm taseer, or intrinsic heating property, paya (or kharode) is best suited for hiemal weather. Apart from being embedded in the philosophy of no-waste cooking, collagen-rich trotters are rich in nutrients like calcium, sulphur and magnesium and are considered efficacious for those recuperating from bone injuries or suffering from sleeplessness.
Food historian Charmaine O’Brien writes in her book, Flavours Of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide, that nihari (a rich stew eaten at the break of day, or nahar) made with sheep’s trotters or knuckles, or a goat’s head, considered “very nourishing and a great source of energy”, was the “dish that the Mughal armies marched on”. Annemarie Schimmel writes in her book, The Empire Of The Great Mughals, “For gentlemen of the seventeenth century a barley soup prepared with lemon juice, rose water, sugar and herbs was recommended, and also sarpacha, ‘head and feet’ of a sheep, which was prepared with vinegar, mint and lime juice.” This light, restorative broth of Persian descent is perhaps the predecessor of the sumptuous paya shorba (spiced soup) of the Indo-Islamic kitchens of the subcontinent.
Around the country, paya is prepared in a myriad ways. There’s the spice-laden Hyderabadi paye ka salan, sometimes perked up with bone marrow; the more festive malai paya, cooked with a rich mix of nuts and topped with fresh cream; the runny Kashmiri pache flavoured with fennel, ginger and black cardamom; or the Chettinad-style aatu kaal paya, perfect for dunking some soft idlis in. “In our home a light but robust goat paya soup, spiced simply with a paste of ginger, garlic and green chillies, is typically served for breakfast, along with brun pao, especially during winters,” says Mumbai-based Shabana Salauddin, who showcases Konkani Muslim cuisine through her enterprise, Ammeez Kitchen. “Paya from the forelegs is preferred because it takes less time to cook,” she adds. “Paya is also cooked with chana dal or split chickpea lentils and a host of spices and paired with rice for lunch. But a particularly special dish, hearty and deliciously warming, is the jigri—where trotters, along with head and offal like tripe and lungs, are cooked in delicately spiced gravy overnight on a slow flame, quite like the nihari,” says Salauddin.
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But there is much more to trotters than shorbas and salans—be it pulaos and tahari cooked in spiced paya yakhni or the Parsi kharia ni jelly, jellied goat-trotter broth sweetened with sugar and flavoured with warm aromatic spices like cardamom and nutmeg. Most recipes call for a splash of brandy or sherry and a dash of lime, or even orange juice, for that touch of acidic tang to balance the sweetness.
Archaeologist and culinary anthropologist Kurush F. Dalal remembers the puffwallahs who used to make early morning rounds of Mumbai’s Parsi neighbourhoods with glasses of delicate doodh na puff, or sweet, airy clouds of milk froth, and would often also sell cups of kharia ni jelly. “They are a thing of the past now,” he says.
At Katy’s Kitchen, the catering outfit he inherited from his mother, the legendary Katy Dalal, and runs with his wife Rhea, the Dalals still trump up kharia ni jelly on orders made at least four days in advance. For it’s a cumbersome process. Cleaning the trotters is particularly arduous. “One must be careful even after the butcher has cleaned and treated them,” says Dalal. Trotters are often singed to remove the hair, bleached with cooking soda and salt, or scrupulously scrubbed with a mixture of rice flour and lime juice, or even a toothbrush, to get rid of hair and dirt.
Another iconic Parsi recipe, Dalal tells me, is the Chora ma Kharia, a dish of lamb or goat trotters and black-eyed peas cooked on a leisurely flame with aromatic spices. “Chora ma Kharia is best paired with crusty bread, typically Mumbai’s favourite brun, and a kachumbar made with onions and cucumbers in a tamarind and jaggery dressing,” says Dalal.
In Nagaland, pork (or beef) trotters, cooked with red kidney beans, herbs and peppers, are a perennial favourite. Bamboo shoot, fresh, dried or fermented, is sometimes added. Trotters, in fact, pair wonderfully with lentils and beans. In 2018, chef Thomas Zacharias combined masala puri—a street snack in Bengaluru comprising crunchy poori and curried vatana, or white peas—with goat trotters and bone marrow to create the Paya masala puri for The Bombay Canteen’s Canteen Nose-to-Tail Feast.
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Kolkata-based restaurateur Doma Wang of Blue Poppy Thakali loves to pair mutton momos with a clear stock of trotters spiced simply with ginger, garlic and chillies. Her favourite trotter treat is the fiery and khutta ko achar, or pickled trotters—a dish of Nepali descent, popular in the Darjeeling hills where Wang grew up. Trotters of one’s choice are cooked with lots of onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic in mustard oil and finished with freshly chopped coriander. The dish often gets its fiery kick from the dalle khursani chillies. In Kolkata, Wang serves up her rendition of sungur ko khutta ko achar (pickled pork trotters) at Blue Poppy Thakali.
Goa, too, loves pork trotters. I came across a recipe for trotters flavoured with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and finished with a touch of vinegar and some sugar, quite similar to a vindaloo in Maria Teresa Menezes’ The Essential Goa Cookbook. The Anglo-Indian style trotters puli fry, on the other hand, gets its mouth-puckering tang from a lashing of tamarind water.
No matter how you like your trotters, sticky fingers and a satisfied soul are a guarantee.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.