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The Journey from Pacha to Paya Shorba

From the antidote that saved the Saudi Arabia King to the soup that created communities, Executive Chef Praveen Shetty of Conrad Bengaluru traces the history of how Paya Shorba – and what makes it a delicacy par excellence

By Madhulika Dash
Paya Shorba. The fine base of Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite soup, the dish that sustained the most powerful armies and successful traders, and a bowl of goodness that built communities, like the Mappila, says Executive chef and culinary researcher, Praveen Shetty. Chef Shetty, who has been researching on the old Silk Route that made India, one of the richest kingdoms, loves the evolution of Pacha to Paya Soup. The story is in fact, adds the chef, “showcases how cuisine and cultures travelled in the old world, and how fine cuisine developed.”

What makes Paya the best showcase? Continues the seasoned culinary mind, “because of how the soup was developed and then adopted into shores it reached courtesy its unique character and science.” Paya which began its journey in Armenia as Khash or bone soup reached the middle east around the early part of medieval ages, where it was used as a treat for the tired souls in guesthouses and in royal homes, who could afford to make this laborious delicacy that demanded hours of toiling over a shorba and then cleverly seasoning it to suit the palate. It is said that the Ottoman army, especially the Janissaries were fond of this soup because of the kind of energy and strength this nutrient soup provided. For the royalty however, the soup was more of an antidote or an aphrodisiac, since it could take subtle herbs and spices like the Saffron well.

Princess Gulbadan (sister to Babur) in one of her memoirs mentions it as the soup that was not only popular among the army as a treat but often was used in the harem to treat a wide variety of ailments including loneliness. High on nutrition and flavours, this soup eventually became the foundation of the rich Siri Paya in Rajasthan and in Emperor Shah Jahan’s court, the base for the aromatic Paya Nihari.

In the middle east though, says Chef Shetty, “paya fame came when the first monarch of Saudi Arabia Abdul Aziz was treated to health with aqdam Aldan Allah am (lamb trotters), a version of Pascha (trotter soup). It is said that the king was so in love with the taste of the soup that he made it a part of his regular meals, and would ask for it once a week or may be more during winters.”

It is said, he continues, “that the version of Paya Shorba of South was inspired by the aqdam aldan allah am, and was a staple of the military canteens that came over the years.” But if foodlores are to be believed then pascha came to India way before its Saudi version courtesy the Arabs and the Jews who made the coast their homes. There is a good chance that the paya which came would be a simple salt, turmeric, bay leaf version that was served with a slice of lime.

The modern version that is thicker and has coconut – and served alongside chicken rice or appam was designed over the years when pascha was further flavoured with elaichi, madras onions and whole spices including the famous peppercorns.”

The rise in popularity of Paya was because of the coastal Mappila community of Kerala who loved their mutton and paya was a lot favourite amongst them. In fact, to them the modern day paya shorba or Attukal paya owes its making and popularity.

A traditional Attukal paya is benchmarked by its thick stew, addition of coconut, cashewnut and poppy seeds. No wonder back in the days it was the star of any wedding. After all, it did showcase the best the coast had to provide.

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