Despite being only 0.06% of the population, the Parsi people are hugely influential and financially successful in India. Ethnically Persian and followers of Zoroastrianism, they sought refuge in Gujarat on the west coast of India somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries after fleeing religious persecution in their homeland – modern day Iran. Today, the vast majority of Parsis reside in Mumbai, with significant numbers also in South Gujarat, Delhi and Calcutta.
Aside from business, the Parsis have also been successful in food. At one time there were a couple of hundred Parsi and Irani (19th century Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran) cafes, restaurants and bakeries in Mumbai. Despite their popularity, these are now unfortunately declining in number due to the reducing Parsi population – a combination of emigration, marriage outside of the community and a low birth rate. There are now reportedly less than two dozen of these cafes remaining. I for one am planning to try to eat at every single one – multiple times – just in case they disappear soon.
Generally meat heavy, Parsi cuisine is a tasty combination of the sweet and sour flavours of Persia, and the Indian spices they were introduced to in Gujarat. Typical dishes include rice pulaos studded with barberries, and dhansak, a smooth dal made with chicken or mutton and served with a caramelized, lightly spiced rice. My favourite thing so far has been sali boti; a curry of mutton – that’s goat, not sheep in India – cubes (the boti) sweetened with apricots, soured with cane vinegar and spiced with the gentle heat of vibrant Kashmiri chillies. The meat is then topped with crunchy potato matchsticks (the sali) and eaten with chapatis. Sounds weird I know! But tastes amazing!
As well as being able to try all these dishes in the cafes, I am lucky enough to have a very generous Parsi landlady living in the flat above – she regularly invites us over for dinner and sends food down. When I asked if she could teach me some of her recipes she didn’t hesitate. Of course I asked for her sali boti recipe! After making both hers and various others in an attempt to get the taste as close possible to those in the cafes, I’ve come up with the recipe below. I hope you end up loving this dish as much as I do.
Mutton Sali Boti (serves 4 generously)
1kg goat leg meat* trimmed of excess fat/gristle (weight with bones)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 small green chilli
6 large garlic cloves
2 inch piece of ginger
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp salt
4 tbsp oil (I use olive)
1 tsp garam masala
3 red onions
3 ripe plum tomatoes
7 dried Kashmiri chillies soaked in hot water for one hour
16 dried apricots soaked in water for one hour
2 tbsp cane or rice vinegar**
For the sali:
Sunflower oil for frying
Fine sea salt for sprinkling
Use ready-made sali (if you’re in India) or crushed up ready salted crisps if you don’t fancy making it yourself
* Goat meat is much more common in the UK these days so get it if you can, otherwise use lamb. Ask your butcher for the bones as this will add more flavour.
** The Parsis tend to use a specific Gujarati brand of sugar cane vinegar but it is hard to come by even in India. Use rice vinegar as a substitute.
Toast the cumin in a pan for a few minutes until fragrant and allow to cool. Grind in a pestle and mortar. Add the garlic cloves and crush. Grate the ginger and roughly chop the green chilli. Add to the mortar and grind until you have a smooth paste.
Cut the meat into 1 inch size pieces. Add the cumin paste along with the turmeric, salt and garam masala. Combine well and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least a couple of hours.
Make the sali. Peel the potatoes and cut into matchsticks as thinly as you can. Place in ice cold water for 30 minutes. Drain and allow to dry on a clean tea towel for an hour or so. Put the sunflower oil in a small frying pan so that it’s approximately 1½ cm deep. Place on a medium high heat. When the oil is hot, fry the matchsticks in batches until golden brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle with the salt. Keep aside until you are eating.
When you are ready to start cooking, chop the onions finely. Heat 3 tbsps of oil in a heavy based pan and fry the onions on a low heat until soft and translucent – approx. 15 minutes. Turn the heat up slightly and allow them to brown a little for 5-10 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to cool.
Roughly chop the tomatoes. Blend until smooth in a food processor with the Kashmiri chillies, cooled onions and 50ml of water.
Add one more tbsp of oil to the pan in which the onions were fried, and turn the heat up to medium high. Add the onion, tomato, Kashmiri chilli combination and fry for 5-10 mins until it darkens in colour. Add the meat and brown. Add another 100ml of water and bring to a simmer. Cover and turn the heat down to low. If you haven’t got a heavy lid, seal it with foil to allow the meat to cook in the steam.
Cut the apricots into quarters, and add these to the pan with the vinegar after 30 minutes. Cover and leave to cook for another 45 minutes.
Check the seasoning and add more salt if necessary. Allow to rest for 15 minutes.
Plate up, sprinkle with the sali and eat with chapatis.