RASHMI OBEROI | 7 DECEMBER, 2014
The 'Aam Papad' Experience
Driving up towards Dalhousie from Pathankot was not only picturesque but also a pleasure thanks to the decent road conditions. The drive-up was very scenic as we found ourselves meandering through charming villages. The hill-side was skirted by beautiful flora and fauna. The rhododendron trees added colour while the pine and deodar trees made the air crisp and fresh. The snow-covered peaks of the Dhauladhar range were visible thanks to a clear day but again their prominence largely depends on the weather conditions as fog is a huge deterrent here and the sun often plays truant.
The highlight of this trip and a delightful surprise that our dear friend Zahl had managed to downplay till we got there was a pit stop at the tiny hamlet called Dunera. It lies in the Gurdaspur region of Punjab and shares its borders with Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. Since this falls in the Pathankot – Dalhousie stretch, tourists use it as a stopping point en route to Chamba and Dalhousie. And there is another attraction here... Unknown to most, you get the best sweet and sour ‘Aam Papad’ here. This is easily and abundantly available in ever kiosk and shop lining the narrow road on either side.
It is a universal delicacy for sure... The dried and layered mango pulp which comes in a variety of flavours depending on the type of mango used, therefore ranges from being overly sweet to slightly sweet, to tangy, or mildly sour to extremely sour. Ultimately it depends on individual taste buds and cravings. The kiosk owners have stacks of ‘Aam Papad’...packed neatly in packets of different weights and attractively laid out on their carts. These are sold with tiny packets of ‘Black Salt’ that enhance the flavour of the dried mango strips.
We had no idea that a land of ‘Aam Papad’ even existed and so we were astounded by the plethora of it available around us. It had always been a hot favourite with me, and an addiction on lazy days where you ended up over-indulging for lack of anything better to do. It is only later when you had to deal with a rather sore-throat that you realised how much you had over-exceeded.
Zahl had his patent pit-stop and so we headed towards a well-stacked kiosk managed by a cheerful owner with an easy disposition. We were introduced to Pradeep who exuberantly handed out chunks of the tangy mango for us to taste. He was quite generous in the quantity that he gave us to just ‘taste and choose’ but I knew what I wanted and went about selecting packets for friends, family and myself. I knew most of it would be reserved by my daughter for her friends and herself, so I had to ensure I had enough supplies to fall-back on! For those... Oh so lazy days!
While Pradeep got the packets in order, he elucidated how according to folklore, the ‘Aam Papad’ business was started by two men over a hundred years ago, who took the ‘desi’ mangoes growing on their land and squeezed them into pulp/juice. Then they poured this on dried palm leaves. As the first layer dried, another layer of pulp was added, dried, till there were a number of such layers. They were further dried till they were dry sheets of mangoes. They then eventually set up a stall under a huge ‘pipal’ tree, on the edge of the village, from where they started to sell their wares.
With time, this product became popular and soon the entire village was involved in this business and it became their livelihood. Mangoes are aplenty in this region and the area boasts of a variety of ‘desi’ mangoes. The different mangoes naturally had their own flavours and tastes and so an assortment of ‘Aam Papad’ was soon available. Over the years, the neighbouring villages also sent in their ‘Aam Papad’ to be sold in Dunera.
Pradeep showed me his stash of ‘Aam Papad’ that was stored in huge sacks. The sheets looked like parchment paper, varying in colour from a dull brown to shades of black. Just then, a jeep had arrived with fresh ‘Aam Papad’ from a nearby village. He mentioned that he had placed his order a fortnight back. Apparently, the local product is much in demand and now sent to different parts of the country. Orders are placed by traders who visit from far and wide. Wholesalers and retailers find it good business. Entire families are now involved in this flourishing cottage industry.
Pradeep mentioned that recently a few of them had gone in for cold storages or hired spaces to keep and store excess mangoes and ‘Aam Papad’ from a bountiful crop but there was a much greater demand of such cold-storage warehouses than that available. The fruit is seasonal and the yields dependent on climatic and soil conditions so whenever there is a good crop, they need to ensure all the surplus ‘Aam Papad’ and mangoes are stored for future use. The lack of such facilities causes a lot of mangoes to rot and go waste. The ‘Aam Papad’ by itself too can get mouldy and fungus and later infected by insects if they are not stored in the right manner. They can stay fresh for a year as long as they are ‘sunned’ out from time to time. His family regularly keeps doing this and so over time, he is well-known for the quality of his products.
This is Pradeep’s story of his name and fame and modest fortune which is obviously also Pradeep’s livelihood as his family depends on his income to sustain themselves. He has seen this family business growing since his childhood and with time will pass on to the next generation. He said he had many loyal customers who placed orders from far and that he sent it to them by parcel. The faithful ones always come back he mentioned gleefully. Foreigners are equally curious about this product we were told and after trying out some, usually end up buying a few packets to eat later.
It was time to leave and little did we realise that we had spent nearly an hour at an ‘Aam Papad’ kiosk. We thanked Zahl for such a memorable experience and Pradeep for enlightening us and we came back so much more knowledgeable about little things that we usually take for granted. And yes, we do have Pradeep’s phone number with us for future orders. The drive back entailed a lot of the ‘Aam Papad’ being polished off – there is no denying that you get hooked on to it quite effortlessly.