Everyone’s favourite saliva-inducing savoury treat

- ABANI MALLA, Kathmandu

May 30, 2019-

Swarnima Shrestha believes she was around five or six when she first tasted titaura. On her way home from school, she says she would pass through shops showcasing jars filled with variations of the item--some dry, some with gravy, some spicy, some sugary. The display, on most days, made her drool. Catching her drooling, her grandmother--who often walked her home from school--would buy her some, despite her parents not allowing her to indulge in the spicy, savoury treats.

“My favourite was khattu. I loved its sour, sweet taste; still do,” says Swarnima, who can’t resist eating titaura when she is offered one.

Titaura, or pau in Nepal Bhasa, is originally a Newar digestive made out of boiled Nepali hog plum--commonly known as lapsi--which is later mixed with preservatives, salt and sugar, spread on a flat surface and dried in the sun. The paper-thin dried lapsi mix is called mada, and is the foundational ingredient for pau. Once the mada is formed, it can be preserved and used when needed.

To make pau, manufacturers take the required amount of mada, further modify it with additional spices and package it--which is then delivered to shops all over the country in a variety of flavours and textures.

A few decades or so ago, the process of making the lapsi digestive used to be limited to only a few homes. Today, it is a thriving business. However, reports of manufacturers employing unhygienic methods of producing titaura--of them preserving mada in open, soiled pits to them drying mada out in the open exposing it to dust and flies--have surfaced multiple times. Despite this, the demand for pau has never faltered. Offer someone a piece of savoury, sugar-coated, spicy pau, and most often than not they will take it and pop it into their mouth.

“As much as I love pau, I try to refrain from eating too much of it though,” says Swarnima. “My stomach gets upset. I don’t know if it’s the spices or because people say titauras are made unhygienically.”

Manufacturers claim that because of the surfacing of such allegations, they have started implementing cleaner methods of making pau and are investing in sanitation measures as much as they can afford.

Sanga, a town in Banepa, has for decades been known as a pau hub, and the widespread rumours concerning hygiene about the pau-making procedures is nothing new to the people there, nor to consumers.

“We used traditional methods earlier, but now we have upgraded our procedures,” says Bijay Shrestha, who has been looking after Laxmi Pau Udhyog, owned by his father Balkrishna Shrestha, at Sanga.

“Whenever I buy titaura, the hygiene quotient is always lingering in the back of my mind,” says Shaili Malla, 17, who has been eating pau since she was seven. “But despite that, I like to eat it sometimes.”

It’s not only the unhygienic production that people nitpick at. People also shirk away from eating pau because of it being reportedly unhealthy.

Jyoti Bokhim Limbu, a freelance fitness trainer, says that pau is included in the list of junk food he recommends his clients to avoid--because of its added preservatives, sugar quantity, and heavy use of other spices.

Dr Aruna Upretti, a public health specialist, however, says that as long as the method is clean, pau is nutritious and healthy because lapsi contains nutrients--even in its cover.

“I also like to eat pau, but only when I make it at home,” says Upretti. “One thing I’d like to recommend is to consume it in moderation, as an excessive amount of salt is used to preserve the mada.”

“Despite all the talk about pau being unhealthy and unhygienic, the demand for pau is ever increasing,” says Vijaya Shrestha,  proprietor of Ratna Park Paun Bhandar.

When Vijaya was 16, his family started a shop at Ratna Park which sold pau made by his maternal uncles and aunts. It was among the few shops that sold pau then, according to him. Vijay, now 51, says that the saliva-inducing treat quickly gained popularity. Of course, the price was much cheaper--ranging from five paisa to two rupees--but he says, it was sufficient to make a good profit, even at that time.

Later in 1996, he established his own pau factory in Kirtipur, which was moved to Mathatirtha, after the 2015 earthquakes. Twenty-three years after its inauguration, it has become one of the most known pau shops in Nepal.

“We make a good profit out of the business,” says Vijaya. “We haven’t experienced any drastic fluctuation in sales as of yet.”

But to ensure his company provides quality pau, Vijaya says they focus on quality over quantity. “We have also maintained our quantity as per the demand and the amount of lapsi available to us.”

Lapsi is harvested from September to January, and is grown only in some parts of Asia--majorly in Nepal. Ratna Park Paun Bhandar imports approximately 100,000 kgs of lapsi from areas bordering the Valley, such as Sindhupalchok, Dolakha, Nuwakot, Dakshinkali and Chapagaun, during the harvesting season.

Laxmi Pau Udhyog--established in the same year as Ratna Park Paun Bhandar, in 1996--gathers an average of 22,000-25,000 kgs of lapsi during the harvesting season from Sindhupalchok’s Melamchi and Chautara. The owners say that they make an average profit of Rs30,000-40,000 a month.

Apart from using a variety of fruits other than lapsi, the manufacturers have also experimented with new fruits to cater to the growing demand, such as lemon, mango, papaya.

Keeping in mind the public’s love for pau and the growth of small-scale pau industries, with 57 pau companies in the Valley registered with the government, the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control, the government regulatory body, has been providing training programmes to pau manufacturers on applying sanitary methods while producing pau, says Purna Chandra Wasti, spokesperson for the department.

According to Wasti, they scour factories to make sure they qualify the conditions of the department before receiving their license. The department ensures that the products have used regulated food colouring products, an adequate amount of preservatives, clean water. The companies have improved on their labelling--meaning all ingredients have to be listed on the packaging in a transparent manner--and have been regulating their products as per the instructions nowadays, says Wasti.

Additionally, as per the department, the registered businesses need to test their products before they send them off to the market, such as whether the food products contain inedible colourants or if they exceed the state-sanctioned amount of preservatives.

“Many pau companies come to test their products time and again, especially when they have a new product,” says Wasti. “It’s mandatory for them to check every year, and so far they have been conducting their tests.”

Along with the government’s efforts to control quality, locals have also tried to adapt to better, cleaner manufacturing methods.

When Devaka Shrestha, 45, established Champak Paun Udhyog in Changunarayan in 2010, she started her business with an intention to make hygienic pau and help the women from her community be involved in small scale industrial work. In her company’s initial days, she frequently visited Sanga to learn the craft of making pau. “Although I learned the technique from them, I didn’t want to apply it,” says Devaka Shrestha, who now also provides workshops on pau-making. So she decided to invent her own method. She built a thermometer-regulated greenhouse made with fibreglass roofs to dry the base ingredient.

Devaka’s high-investment and time-consuming method was mocked by others. “After I started producing pau, they visited me and laughed asking how I’d make a profit out of it.”

But now, to meet standards, many of the manufacturers have adopted similar alternative measures to make pau, such as using 200 litres high-density polyethylene (HDPE) drums to preserve mada, instead of using pits dug in open fields.

“We have to upgrade our methods as much as we can,” says Devaka. “But due to lack of resources, both financial and technological, we have to make do with what is available.”

Devaka also facilitates week-long workshops for anyone interested, to start their own pau business. While she covers the basics of pau making in the workshop, she allocates a whole day to introduce and elaborate on hygienic procedures.

Efforts are definitely being taken to adopt sanitary techniques while producing pau--but if all existing businesses in the market adhere to them is something we don’t know. Nevertheless, none of this has ever deterred pau lovers from buying and indulging in them.

Swarnima, who is one such consumer, still prefers pau, albeit occasionally. But, for her, the taste of pau is also associated with memories with her grandmother.

Be it taste or nostalgia, it seems that the pau business is here to stay.

Published: 31-05-2019 06:30

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