Most of the city’s Parsi food-serving Irani restaurants are around Fort, and fried foods and sweets shop Camy Wafers has a sound and solid reputation among them for the quality of their salli, the well-loved, deep-fried and salted juliennes of potato often used in Parsi food. Indeed, Britannia’s 91-year-old Boman Rashid Kohinoor Irani said he only buys his stock for the 91-year-old restaurant’s salli boti, salli kheema, and salli chicken from the Camy Wafers shop on Colaba Causeway. When I visited this outlet, the manager briefly paused in the middle of their frenetic mid-afternoon business to inform me that that they sell about ten kilos of salli a day on average, not counting festive occasions. The biggest buyers are Irani joints and Parsi restaurants, as well as Parsi and Sindhi folk who come from nearby Colaba and from as far as Hughes Road.
A few years ago, I had spent a few weeks in Iran, where, leave aside salli, potatoes barely figure in the cuisine and meals are typically a spread of beautiful leaf-thin “berg” kebabs; barberry-, saffron- and fried onion-laden meaty “polo” (a biryani-like rice dish, related to pilaf and pulao); “fesenjan” or duck cooked in a nutty-tart sauce of walnuts and pomegranate molasses, and the fizzy minty yoghurt drink “ayran”. The Persian influence in Indian Parsi food is evident in the community’s love for meat and their propensity to combine it with dried fruit, as in jardalu salli boti. But the Parsi proclivity to to put these crisp fried potato sticks on their gravied dishes seems to be entirely their own. (We Sindhis eat salli as a snack, sprinkled with red chilles and salt, with our tea, while Maharashtrians make a sweet-salty and very delicious chiwda with them.)
Dalal offered the most plausible explanation for the Parsi love of salli. Potatoes, among other produce, were brought to western India by the Portuguese (via Spanish explorers who brought them from the Andes in South America, where the potato originates) in the early 16th century. The Parsis, being an adaptable and integrative community, adopted some Portuguese ways. Vinegar (“sarka”, part of Parsi pork vindaloo, and many other dishes) and potatoes are Portuguese influences on Parsi food, and have nothing to do with Persia.
It’s still hard to say which ingenious Parsi cook decided to put salli over spicy mince, over chicken and apricots, and under eggs (salli par eeda), but Dalal points out that its explosive crunchiness apart, this textural joy also has a very practical use – during bhonu (meals), it prevents the gravy of the dishes it covers from running all over the patra (banana leaf). Dalal says that to be most effective, salli has to be cut just right – too long and it starts curling. It also needs to be fried just right – the best salli has a definitive snap, and is also very pale, cream in colour, with a flush of gold. Before mandolines and potato-cutting machines came along, all salli was manually made, and it was all tediously hand-cut jaadi (fat) salli. Dalal has memories of going to Golden Wafers on Grant Road as a kid and watching the workers hand squeeze brined potato sticks in a cheesecloth that had gone grey from all that starch.
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