Nepal’s pau capital

14 min read
23 Mar 2017
14 min read
2489 words
Over four decades, the locals of Sanga have turned their town into a pau production hub

Some 40 years ago, according to the villagers of Sanga, Kavre, a local man developed a method for producing preservable pau. He took some pau kwa—a digestive made out of lapsi that is served at the end of Newari feasts—added some salt to it, smeared the mixture onto a flat wooden surface and left it under the sun to dry. After a day, all the moisture from the pau kwa evaporated, resulting in a brown, dry sheet—mada. Mada soon became a favorite treat among the locals, and soon more people in Sanga started adopting pau-making, and then selling them outside Sanga. Over time, the villagers started to modify their base mada model to cater to the various palates of their buyers, and in doing so, they came up with the many varieties of saliva-inducing concoctions known today as pau, or titaura

Market demand for Sanga’s pau was such that soon almost all the villagers started to get involved in pau production. And over time, the villagers developed a unique manufacturing structure which is still in place today: some households work lower down the production chain—that is, only producing mada—while a few households do it all: produce the mada, turn them into pau and then ship them to buyers far and wide. Sanga, today, almost seems like an industrial zone devoted solely to pau-making. 

Market demand for Sanga’s pau was such that soon almost all the villagers started to get involved in pau production

That character is on full display right from around Sanga Gate, where a good deal of khaja ghars and kirana stores line either side of the highway. Most of these stores, if not all, have small packets and plastic containers laden with pau. And flanking the road from the highway that leads up to the Kailashnath Mahadev statue are several more shops with containers filled to the brim with assortments of sukkha and jhol pau. Behind these shops are fields covered with wooden planks that have many, many square metres of mada drying on them. The roofs of these shops—which are flat, instead of the usual sloped ones found in the district—have been designed to accommodate the wooden, 1ft by 1.5ft crates that are used for drying pau. During daylight hours, these crates turn the roofs into a mosaic of brown and orange. As dusk falls, the crates are taken down, revealing the silver zinc roofs underneath. 

Pau-making involves a rather lengthy process. The core ingredient required is lapsi, which can be found in decent amounts in Sanga. But because that is insufficient for the large amounts of pau that need to be produced, the Sanga locals source lapsi from farms in Sindhupalchok, Kavre and Bhaktapur. Sanga is conveniently located somewhere in the middle of these districts—which together comprise the region where lapsi trees most densely grow. Truckloads of lapsi are transported to Sanga every harvesting season—September to January. This is the busiest time of the year for the pau makers since they not only have to try and meet the never-dipping demand for pau, but also have to process, preserve and store enough lapsi to last them during the off-seasons.

According to Ajay Shrestha, one of the owners of Laxmi Pau Udhyog, Sanga, about 100-150 households in the area only manufacture mada—also referred to as ‘raw material’ by the locals. These households sell the mada to either the five or six large-scale pau udyogs in Sanga and also sell lapsi to the people who will use it to make achaar for momos. The big-scale pau udyogs do not just source their mada from the local households but make their own too. And both the udyogs and the smaller mada-making units have their own suppliers from whom they order amounts of lapsi as determined by their manufacturing scale. The process of collecting, preserving and storing lapsi takes place during the aforementioned lapsi-harvesting season. 

The process of pau-making begins after the lapsi have been thoroughly washed and then boiled in huge drums. When the lapsi begin to burst, that’s when you know they have been boiled enough. It takes around two hours to boil a hundred kilos of lapsi. After the boiling stage, the lapsi are treated in one of two ways. Both the skin and the pulp are mashed together, or only the pulp is mashed; it all depends on the type of pau that is to be manufactured. For most non-candy pau, the skin is mixed in the pulp. However, for the candy variants—where the skin would mar the chewy, gummy texture—the skin is removed and only the pulp is used. 

Next comes the preservation phase—which makes use of one of two methods. For some pau varieties, the lapsi is preserved using salt. The rule of thumb is that 15 kilos of salt is to be put into a hundred kilos of lapsi. For the sweeter varieties, salt cannot be used as a preservative because it would mitigate the sweet taste. For them, the pau-makers use controlled quantities of potassium metabisulfite as a preservative. The preserved lapsi is then turned into either mada or candy. 

Usually, both individual mada-makers as well as the pau manufacturers are involved in mada-making. When the bigger pau houses run out of their stock, that is when they approach the mada-makers. The pau-makers, therefore, need not worry about the availability of the mada since they can always depend on the mada-making households. With this model, the bigger pau houses don’t need to constantly worry about the raw materials, and they can afford to (instead of using up more labor to make mada) invest their labor in the other equally important aspects of the manufacturing process, such as lapsi peeling, mashing and packing. 

The next step is adding flavor to the mada. At every udyog, the owners decide what kinds of flavors the mada is to be given; they come up with new recipes for their pau or modify the existing ones in response to the feedback they’ve gotten from customers. Each family uses slightly different recipes, which is why the taste of the pau differs from udyog to udyog

The owners also experiment with their pau’s appearance. For example, some customers do not believe that pau is made out of lapsi unless there is a lapsi seed inside it. For such customers, pau-makers have come up with a variation, referred to as lapsi candy, where the seeds that were initially removed are coated with the processed and flavored lapsi. This reassures customers that the pau is indeed made of the fruit.   

The owners also experiment with their pau’s appearance. For example, some customers do not believe that pau is made out of lapsi unless there is a lapsi seed inside it

Owing to such experimentation and customer demand, today, not only are there about 30 types of lapsi pauchoila pau, special pau, lyasi pau, to name a few—but also many other varieties made out of lemons, tamarinds and mangoes. As with lapsi pau, there are various methods and ingredients involved in the making of the lemon, tamarind and mango pau

“So many people here have been able to live better lives just because of the lapsi,” says Rajaram Duwal, owner of Buddha Pau Udyog. “The farmers know that there will always be demand for their lapsi. Most of the lapsi farms provide employment to many people—the cultivators, the lapsi-pickers, the people who load them onto the trucks so that they can be transported to places such as Sanga. And not to forget, the drivers of those trucks,” he adds. 

And in Sanga itself, almost every villager is involved in pau production. The lapsi need to be washed, boiled, peeled, ground, smeared over wooden crates, dried and packaged. Around 1,500 to 1,800 people from Sanga, Banepa and Dhulikhel, according to both Duwal and Shrestha, are involved in one or more aspects of the production process. 

Among the more interestingly designed pau udyogs is that of Duwal—he’s actually turned his house into a factory. Most of the rooms in his five-storey house are used for some part of the manufacturing process. On his terrace, women, with their backs to the sun, gather around buckets full of different flavors of pau and pack them with spoons and ladles into plastic packets. In another room, a group of workers lather oil onto a wooden crate and smear lapsi over the crate to dry. Some scoop fistsful of processed lapsi and gradually tighten their fists so that the mixture oozes out of the opening created by their thumb and forefinger, and from the mixture, they form little dollops, which are then left to dry. Then there are other workers who sit cross-legged on the floor and seal the pau packets with a sealing machine and staple the manufacturer’s label onto them. 

Most of the pau that is churned out at these factories is loaded onto trucks and then shipped to the many titaura pasals, kirana pasals and supermarkets all over Kathmandu. Pau is also shipped to places such as Butwal and Pokhara, in vehicles hired by the udyogs. “We also export several hundred cartons of pau to the US, China, Tibet and India. Our products are also taken to many other countries as gifts and souvenirs,” says Duwal. 

The udyogs have also put in place a distribution system to have their mada distributed to some of the special pau bhandars outside Sanga. These pau bhandars do not make their own mada but source it from Sanga. These bhandars of Kathmandu and of other places need not approach the Sanga’s mada-making households one by one to gather mada. Instead, they just approach one of these big pau houses, which are the depositories for the mada-makers. While those pau-makers outside Sanga approach the pau houses of Sanga for mada, there are also some who directly contact the mada-makers without the help of the big-scale pau houses. 

And recently, some of the pau makers have started thinking about vertically integrating their production process. For instance, Duwal says that he, along with other pau-makers, have been planning to start a lapsi-tree plantation in Sanga itself—which would cause the cost of production to significantly decrease. At the same time, he is also working with students of Kathmandu University as well as some Indian scientists to further mechanise the manufacturing process—they are coming up with a new machine to separate the seeds from the lapsi.

With the help of such innovations, the people of Sanga may soon be able to produce even more pau, and at a much faster rate—to meet a demand that never seems to wane. It’s owing to this demand that pau-making became a vocation for almost all households in Sanga. It’s also owing to this demand that the households continue to experiment with their products. If that almost-mythical Sanga local who 40 years ago devised a way to preserve pau were alive today, he would be amazed at how his concoction has gone on to catch the fancy of millions and turn the entire village of Sanga into a full-fledged pau-making hub.