RONAN O'CONNELL discovers that the 'king of yoghurts' isn't just for eating but plays an important role in festivities
More than 50 ceramic kataaro pots are laid out on the ground of a run-down factory, creating a pattern that is pleasing to the eye. Just as agreeable is the scent that is wafting from this arrangement of containers. A middle-aged Nepalese woman walks slowly to the far end of the factory and adds two more kataaro to this cluster, each filled with the sweet treat that is creating the welcome aroma.
As she turns and walks back towards me, she picks up one of the pots closest to me.
Then she passes it to me, along with a spoon. I take a taste of its contents. She doesn’t speak English and my Nepali vocabulary barely extends beyond “hello”, “goodbye” and “thank you”. Fortunately, in this instance language is transcended by the human love of food. I smile and give her a thumbs up. The hype is justified, I think to myself. This really is the “king of yoghurts”.
That is the literal translation of the name of this Nepalese dairy delight, juju dhau. For centuries it has been central to the cuisine of the Newari indigenous tribe of Nepal, who still use ancient methods to make this thick creamy treat.
It is so important to Newari culture it plays a role in several festivals. It is no wonder, then, that it is called the “‘king of yoghurts”.
I had seen juju dhau for sale in many restaurants and shops in Nepal so when I visited its home — the ancient city of Bhaktapur — I decided to visit this factory to learn more about it. A sweetened yoghurt with a consistency similar to a particularly thick custard, juju dhau is different from the varieties we are used to in Australia.
The key difference is that, rather than being made from the milk of a cow, it is typically made from buffalo milk. This, the Newaris believe, gives it a stronger taste and greater density.
The first step in making juju dhau is to boil this milk and sweeten it with honey or spices like cloves and cardamom. In the factory I visited this process was done using huge steel pots over a wood fire. Then the boiled milk is mixed with cultures and tipped into the kataaro pots. These pots are then put in a storeroom, the floor of which is covered in rice husks. Clay lids are then put on each of the pots, which are then covered by hessian fabric. The porous nature of the pots, together with the heat trapped inside them, helps with the evaporation of liquids, resulting in a lovely dense product.
Sometimes juju dhau is eaten or sold while still in this pot. Often it is poured into smaller containers and eaten in the same way yoghurt is consumed here — as a snack or dessert, often paired with fruit or nuts. It is also used as a key ingredient in lassi, which sees it mixed with water and spices to create a refreshing drink.
Beyond its popularity as a food, juju dhau has a significant role in Newari traditions and festivities.
Alongside honey, cane sugar, milk and ghee butter, this yoghurt is considered one of the five “nectars of the gods”. These five ingredients are used to create panchamrita, used as an offering during Puja prayer rituals.
The Newaris believe that juju dhau represents the full moon and it has the power to repel dark forces, and to bring good fortune.
For this reason it is common to see a portion of juju dhau left by the front door of a home during festivals or other important events.
Most importantly, to me at least, juju dhau is delicious. I ate it for breakfast the following two mornings before searching out a reasonable facsimile of it when I left Nepal and headed home to Bangkok.
The Greek yoghurt I settled upon was nice but at best it was a prince. It could not compete with the “king of yoghurts”.