Many of my childhood memories are packed into boxes, but then there are some that are wrapped in little packets and sold in Kathmandu’s shops.
It comes in flavorful assortments — sweet, savory, sour, spicy, mix of sweet and savory, or a fusion of all those and even more — just like the blend of emotions that’s sometimes a mix of everything. In Newari — my mother tongue that I struggle to speak — it’s called pau, which literally means sour. In Nepali — the language I speak on a daily basis — it’s referred as titaura.
If I were to translate pau and its meaning to English — the language I mostly write in — it might be as perplexing as its taste that created a riot of confusion on my American friend’s tongue, and then his face, so much so he spat it out with disgust.
Mostly made from lapsi, pau is as distinctive as the marble-sized hog plum it’s made of, native to Nepal and a few other Asian countries. I cannot recall the exact age I first tasted pau but I can guesstimate the place — it must have been one of the Newari bhwayes where the liquified pau, known as pau kwa or lukewarm pau, is served toward the end of the feast so one can wash away the heaviness of the meal with a tangy aftertaste on the tongue.
My dadi maa especially made the maada for the bhwayes. I watched her smush the lapsi and separate it from the seeds that we later turned into a spinning top. I squatted in front of my grandmother as she sprinkled the gooey texture with salt, chili powder, and hing, among other spices, before pasting on a wooden board and then leaving it in the sun for days until it dried and peeled off. She also made the special ones, sprinkled with sugar, for her grandchildren — that was the only kind of pau that was allowed, and that, too, was rationed.
As for the other kind, the sweet, savory, dry, or drenched-in-red-saucy-gravy-kind of titaura sold in shops and restricted at home, I might have savored it when I was old enough to have a 1 rupee pocket money from my grandfather. “Just don’t buy pau,” baa said tirelessly. “I’ll buy postcards,” my automated response awaited.
Holding the blue-colored note in a badly-shaped origami, I often sneaked out of the house to the shops along the street that led to Pashupati. I had already tasted pau and my tongue longed for those flavorful explosions, making the child’s brain go on a little adventure — the thrill of buying the forbidden fruit in plain sight was as venturous as going on a secret treasure hunt.
Most of the times I stopped by the nanglo pasal owned by an old couple beside the Bhimsen Temple — they had the best deal in their small shop spread over a circular bamboo tray. About eight square-sized pieces of the savory and sour pau for a rupee.
Then there was Dambar Man’s shop where I bought bechi pau, dusted with black salt. The shopkeeper, Dambar Man’s young son, took out the tiny, rectangular pau pieces from the glass jar, counted each of them meticulously, as I impatiently waited hoping no one would see that. One rupee got me about 20 small pieces that lasted almost the entire day — and I made sure it lasted.
Few houses down, at Chandra Man’s shop, the elderly man’s daughters sat listlessly listening to the radio as I asked for the spicy and saucy imli pau made of tamarind. Sometimes they ignored the little customer until they finished their conversation. And a visit to my cousins’ at Bagbazaar meant the mandatory stop at the shops in Ratna Park with my aunts who also loved the pau there — the shops specialized only in pau and were famous for their jhol titauras, which I smuggled home as prized souvenirs from a foreign trip to relish later.
There is no right or wrong way to savor titatura. Some throw it in their mouth, then chew and swallow like one would gulp a good glass of wine without stirring, smelling and slowly sipping. But I was the other kind, the lobhi or the greedy kind, who preferred the longer-lasting pau experience.
I first licked off the salty dusting from the bechi pau or the gooey sauce of that chili titatura in slow motion as the tongue touched the mouth’s hard palate before the saliva flooded the taste. Everything that remained then went into the mouth, again playing in between the mouth’s palate and the tongue, as the jaws moved in a mark of approval before the experience ended.
But the slow and lobhi approach wasn’t always possible, especially not in the presence of my parents who were the enemy No. 1 of pau. I wasn’t always successful in hiding my pau-eating habit either. The paus, especially the ones dusted and drenched in chili sauce that stained my deep pockets that hid it from the disapproving eyes of my elders, gave away my secret.
There was anger when they found my chili-stained pockets, and each one of them never hesitated to blame titatura for any tummy troubles. “It’s all because of pau — they’re unhealthy and unhygienic,” they said every time mostly in Newari, which made me believe they weren’t really communicating that to me.
I couldn’t tell if that was the truth —parents even told children that paus sold in shops were made of paper to deter them from eating — but I never tried to find out because I wanted that affair to continue. And it still does.
Today, pau is packaged and labelled with ingredients that goes into the making following proper procedures. Gone are the days when I could ask for the beji pau from the glass jar and Dambar Man’s son would count individual pieces before wrapping into a small sheet of the previous day’s Gorkhapatra. It’s now available at supermarkets and brands market them as “export quality,” packets of which I still stash in my suitcase before leaving Kathmandu. In a foreign land, I save them for as long as I can, just like the lobhi child who took the longest time to savor it, and each bite reminds me of home and more so the frivolous stories associated with my pau-eating habit.
Pau’s status as a gastronomical delight is arguable, and I don’t even know how to categorize it — Is it a snack? Is it a treat? Is it really being called candy these days? — but it unquestionably does the trick of tickling the taste buds and is a treat for the tongue. And after all these years, however unhealthy it may be, that little piece of pau still sparks so much joy.
Photos: Alok Thapa