Come winter and the alleys of Chitli Qabar bazaar in Old Delhi present a fascinating sight in the morning. Along with street vendors selling objects as varied as Urdu newspapers, eggs, cloves of garlic and ginger, fresh fish from Punjab, live chickens, namkeen packets, balloons, there are men who cover their share of the pavements with straw baskets containing buffalo legs, or paya, priced at Rs.50 a piece. The vendors are called payawallas; paya means leg in Urdu.
“Although payas are also had in summer, they are primarily a winter dish served for breakfast,” says Sabeeha Hassan, a Chitli Qabar resident whose son owns and manages a butchery in south Delhi’s RK Puram. “The legs of buffalo heat up the body. Its taseer (effect) is warming.”
Since it takes more than 2 hours to cook the meat, many payawallas sell semi-cooked legs to time-conscious customers. Often simmered on the pavement itself, the legs are arranged in a circle inside a water-filled utensil on a wood-fired or kerosene stove.
“The payas come from Ghazipur Mandi,” says Mohammad Shah Nawaz, a paya vendor, referring to the slaughterhouse on the eastern border of Delhi that virtually supplies all the meat to the city. Like most other fellow businessmen, Nawaz also sets up shop on the pavement. His customers comprise primarily the area’s housewives.
“The vendors also sell calves’ legs, which are cheaper, but I always buy burra (buffalo) legs,” says Hassan. “The latter has more meat, while a calf’s leg is very dry.”
Recalling her food memories from when she was a child, author Sadia Dehlvi, whose family used to live in the Ballimaran neighbourhood of Old Delhi, says, “Our cook cooked paya every morning in the winter.” Dehlvi, who is working on a book that deals with Old Delhi’s cuisine, says “Paya is a soupy, gelatinous dish cooked with trotters and the lower part of the leg. Our elders believed paya to be especially beneficial for old people whose bones had become soft. Even today, if anyone among our relatives happens to fracture a bone, he is regularly plied with paya, which is supposed to strengthen the bones.”
In the winter months, a number of eateries in the Walled City serve dishes like nihari (meat stew) and paya in the morning (7.30am onwards). However, in famous restaurants like Karim’s (near Jama Masjid), the paya consists of the leg of goat. Rehmet Khan, the paya cook at Karim’s, says, “Many of our customers come from outside the Walled City, and they prefer dishes of goat rather than burra.”
Local residents like Hassan are, however, traditionalists. “To me, paya means the leg of the bhainsa (buffalo),” she says, pointing to a paya vendor from her roof. “Making paya for breakfast is not easy,” she says. “You have to clean it of hair, then you have to boil it for hours in salted water. Like other gosht (meat) dishes, you have to prepare ginger-garlic paste. You also need to have all the necessary masalas.”
“Once, paya was an exclusive Delhi dish,” says Dehlvi, “but now it has spread to Muslim communities across India and Pakistan.”
Garnished with coriander, green chillies, shredded ginger, browned onions, garam masala powder and desi ghee, paya is traditionally served with khameeri roti.