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.
But that’s nothing compared to how much salli flies off the shelves at Metro Wafers on Mathar Pakadi Road in Mazgaon. This shop, which is about a third the size of Colaba’s Camy, sells 60 to 70 kilos of the minuscule potato sticks a day, all fried daily in the kitchen at the back. Owner Murtuza Ujjainwala took me to the back of his shop where a gleaming aluminum kadhai (in which a full-grown man could lay down very comfortably) is perched on a waist-high tandoor-like stove. “Walk carefully and slowly,” he said to me as we moved past sacks of potatoes, the kind called “wafer batata” in Vashi vegetable market, on the oil-slicked floor of the passageway. Every morning a few boys gather at the back of the shop to peel the spuds and then push them, lengthwise, into crude slicing and cutting machines. Depending on the blade, the potatoes get shaped into translucent slices for wafers, or into thin or thick potato sticks for two kinds of salli. These fall below into a vat of water and get washed to rid them of excess starch. They’re then squeezed dry in a drum that works much like the spin cycle in a washing machine before being fried in the massive kadhai.
“Of course the oil splashes back at you,” said Ujjainwala when I asked him about how the salli is salted. It seems unintuitive and downright dangerous, but Metro’s boys toss arcs of very concentrated brine into the bubbling oil once the salli has begun to crisp. This ensures that the salt is evenly distributed in the chips and doesn’t sit only on their surface. “If I put salt on top, there will be salt deposits on the inside of the packet, and when you put the salli in your mouth, the first thing you will taste is an unpleasant hit of salt,” said Ujjainwala. To minimise accidents from the splashing, Metro’s boys put only 85 litres of oil in the kadhai at a time when in fact it can hold 180. All of the day’s salli is fried by 10am, and you can tell from the space it gets on the shop’s shelves that it is their highest seller. Parsis prefer the thin variety.
Metro was recommended to me by archaeologist and Parsi food caterer Kurush Dalal who regularly buys his stock from them. I went to Dalal to solve the mystery behind the origins of salli in Parsi food. 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.)
Salli par eeda.
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.
“Parsi food originates in India, and for Parsis taste is paramount,” said Shehriar Khosravi, owner of Cafe Military, where the kheema salli is among our favourites in the city. “Somebody at some point must have noticed that salli tastes good, and decided to eat it. It’s like potatoes in other [communities’] foods. It’s not that the batata vada originated in Shivaji Maharaj’s era, or that potatoes grew in south India to have someone put it in masala dosa.” Food writer Vikram Doctor has a well-reasoned theory about how salli became a substantial garnish for Parsi food in India. “It’s quite likely an alternative for birista and provides textural contrast,” he said. Birista is the name for deeply caramelised and slightly crisp, long slivers of onions used in Middle Eastern and Indian dishes such as biryanis, Turkish yoghurt-sauced pasta dishes, and Irani “polo”. Salli is a worthy replacement. (Try it on sambar, in Sindhi kadhi, on palak raita, on nalli nihari, even on alu muttar. It makes everything more fun.)
Perhaps the most surprising and verifiable piece of information I learned about salli came up during my conversation with Ujjainwala. He said that ten kilos of potatoes yields only three kilos of salli, and soaks up one and a half litres of oil in the process. So wait, salli is half massively dehydrated potato and half oil? “Haan”, he said. “Why else do you think potatoes are about Rs10 for a kilo and salli is typically for Rs250?”
Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi is a Mumbai-based food journalist, a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and the restaurant reviewer for the Hindustan Times newspaper in Mumbai.