The Goan Pao
What can be more Goan than this simple but soul-warming bread?
The bread or pau in Goa is more than an element of food; it is an insignia of our most talked about virtue, hospitality. People in Bombay have nicknamed us Goans ‘Pau’, simply because we cannot do without it. Nowhere in India will you find a bread like the pau of Goa.
As every Goan reader of this story will know, it has an indifferent taste when eaten by itself. This plainness and its crusty exterior allow it to soak in tangy curries or gravies. Once the combination is in the mouth, it’s transformed into the really Goan experience. What makes the pau (called undey in its most popular shape) and its cousins the kankon, the poiee, the bota, the butterfly-shaped katre pau and the pokshe (slit at the center) so distinct?
Gracy Sequiera explains: “The pau has a very important stage of ‘fermentation’ which gives it that unique taste and texture.” Gracy had got married soon after her schooling to help her husband in the family business, which has been baking paus for three generations in Socorro.
However, besides the zymological procedure, there is another important aspect that makes the bread inimitable (Translation for all haters of big words: besides the way we bake it, there’s other stuff that makes it hard to copy). “The wood or mud oven, locally known as the ‘forn’, is also responsible for the unique taste,” reveals Juliet Dias, who comes from a family who has been ancestrally associated with a traditional bakery in Nuvem.
His wife tells us another secret, “The breads are baked on the floor of the oven. The effect of baking it on the earthen tile floor gives it a texture and bakes it uniformly.” Patience seems to be the key here. A leisurely process. Akin to the easy going unruffled nature of Goans.
The pau has allowed itself to be cut and stuffed with meats and vegetables. Legend has it that the art of baking bread with toddy as the fermenting medium was first taught by the Portuguese to the people of Utorda-Majorda, in coastal South Goa. Locals from this village who mastered the skill further migrated to bigger towns and cities increasing their business.
In recent times, the traditional business ventures have been facing a lot of hardships like the lack of labour, especially skilled. “Baking these local versions of the pau is a cumbersome task. One has to work next to a hot oven, wake up in the wee hours of the morning and compromise on proper sleep,” points out Mr. Sequiera who considers himself very fortunate to have found a life partner who shares the drudgery. “She’s been a great help. Ever since we got married, she helped me lift up the business, which was in the dumps … I am fortunate to fall in love with someone who is the perfect mother at home and a partner and support at work.”
Why do new generation bakers hesitate to invest in baking bread? Juliet says: “It is time consuming and since families are now nuclear and we have fewer children, fewer members in each home, we have to employ labour, which … is scarce and expensive.” Besides, the earnings don’t match the effort put in.
The local bread has been struggling to survive. “Bread gives you less margin for a profit. Confectioneries made from the same measure of ingredients like patties give us a bigger profit margin,” clarifies Gracy. She wishes the Government grants schemes/subsidies to purchase raw materials like ‘maida’.
The bakers have been agitating to raise the cost of each pau to Rs 3 from Rs 5. But the poor won’t be able to afford that, which is why they want the Government to subsidize the ingredients.
In spite of so many kinds of bread available in the market, Gracy tells us why the pau reigns: “Sliced bread falls apart easily when you dip it in gravy or sauce. The pau on the other hand mops it up comfortably and can be chewed so it blends with the flavours and textures of the dish.”
Her husband nods and agrees: “There are also less health problems if you eat fresh food. Our paus are fresh, and home-delivered several times a day. Sliced bread is packed in plastic, bought and consumed even after 3 days. Preservatives are used to keep the bread fresh. It’s not really fresh.”
A healthier version of the pau is the ‘cuniachi poiee’ which is a whole wheat bread ground in the local flour mills. The husk of the wheat is deliberately used to increase is dietary value, making it a good source of nutrition for diabetics.
Man, even a baker, cannot live on bread alone; thus bakers venture into other bakery items like the patties and cutlets which are popular tea time snacks.
The pau brings smiles and warms up the lives of people. The poder (deliverer of pau) is your alarm in the mornings and nap-killer in the evenings. Through the chill and the rain the poder comes home to deliver us our daily bread. Long may he live to bring us our pau!