How one factory in Bouddha makes its popular whole wheat noodles

- Tsering Ngodup Lama, Kathmandu

Feb 6, 2019-

It’s a few minutes past 1 in the afternoon when two workers from the Shambala Noodle Factory in Fulbari, Bouddha, enter the factory’s noodle-making room, where space is sparse and everything in it, except for a bright pink speaker, serves some noodle-making purpose.

One of the workers switches on the noodle-making machine and the speaker. Soon the room is filled with the machine’s whirring and clanking, intermingled with Bollywood songs blaring  out of the speaker. The workers deftly perform a range of tasks, from pushing sheets of dough through a noodle-making machine to arranging freshly-made noodles on a double-layered drying rack.

The Shambala Noodle Factory is one of a dozen factories in Bouddha that sell freshly-made noodles. Such noodle factories have existed in Bouddha for decades, where there has always been a thriving noodle-eating culture driven primarily by the area’s large population of Sherpa, Tamang, Yolmo and Tibetan people, for whom noodles or thukpa, as it's locally called, is a staple dish.

It was this steady customer base that convinced Samir Tamang to start Shambala Noodle Factory seven years ago. “A friend of mine had a noodle factory, and whenever I didn’t have work, I would come to the factory and just hang out,” says Tamang, who formerly used to work as a trekking guide. He learned everything about noodle-making by helping his friend at the factory, and when his friend told him that he was selling the factory, Tamang decided to buy it in 2012.

“I paid Rs400,000 for the factory. The income from the factory wasn’t great, but it was better than what I made as a trekking guide. And most importantly, it gave me a steady income, which isn’t the case when you work as a trekking guide,” says Tamang.

Business started improving in the second half of 2015. “The earthquakes and the Indian blockade crippled normal life, and there was a severe shortage of cooking gas. This led to a spike in noodle demand. Unlike our usual dal bhat tarkari, for which one has to prepare several items separately, noodles are a wholesome dish on their own, which meant less usage of cooking gas,” says Tamang.

But meeting the demand wasn’t easy, as Tamang’s factory relies heavily on electricity, which was only available for a few hours in a day. “We were making noodles in the middle of the night because that’s usually when we had electricity. Our noodle-making machine, with its clinking, clanking and whirring, was a huge disturbance to our neighbours, but we had to do what we had to do,” he says.

A lot has changed since 2015. Shambala now has two factories, both in Bouddha. And they now have a machine to mix flour, which they used to do by hand. “A single flour-mixing machine alone costs Rs100,000 to 150,000, and we couldn’t afford it then,” says Tamang. “Now that we have it, our production has become much more efficient.”

The noodle-making process at Shambala starts with the flour mixer. Tamang pours a sack of 50kg flour into the mixer, followed by a mixture of water and egg. “For 50kg of flour, we put 150 eggs and 15 litres of water,” says Tamang. He makes another variant with the same amount of flour and water but with 300 eggs. This mixture of flour, water, and eggs is then blended in the mixer for 10 minutes. Once mixed, it is taken out and laid to sit for 15 minutes.

“We then take 10 to 12kg of the mixture and then pour it into a dough flattener. The process is repeated until we have a one long, smooth sheet of dough,” says Tamang.

Depending on the size of the noodles to be made, a cutter is attached to the same machine and the flat sheet of dough is pushed through the cutter. From the other end, a long string of freshly-made noodles comes out. The noodles are then cut and dried on a rack for three to four days.

“The whole process of turning 50kg of flour into noodles takes around an hour-and-a-half. Our noodles have a shelf life of five to six months” says Tamang.  

If you think this whole process sounds a little too simple, it’s not. “How much water you add to the flour depends on which time of the year it is. The flour that we get in winter is made from stock wheat, and that requires more water; the flour in spring and summer requires a litre or two less water,” says Tamang. “Even the wind makes a lot of difference. The wind in the months from February to April makes the noodle very dry and brittle, which results in a lot of breakages. More breakages, more loss. You have to be very careful while drying and make sure that noodles are dried just right.”

At Shambala, Tamang makes three different sizes of noodles: round (chow mein noodle), which is 1.5mm wide; medium flat, which is 3mm wide; big flat, which is 5mm wide. Unlike most noodle factories in Bouddha, Tamang makes whole wheat noodles.

“We used to make whole grain noodles only on a made-to-order basis, but with people becoming more health conscious, we decided to make whole grain noodles regularly. Even though whole grain noodles tend to break more easily in the drying stage, which means more loss, I still make it because I don’t want any of my customer to walk out empty-handed from my factory and head to the next noodle factory,” says Tamang.

The factory witnesses a constant flow of people, and hardly anyone returns empty-handed. An elderly Tibetan woman bought a kilo of noodles, a monk bought a kilo, a young woman bought four kilos for her restaurant, and another young man came and bought five kilos for his restaurant.

“For the first few years, the majority of my customers were people who cooked noodles at home. But today, 70 percent of my customers are restaurant owners,” says Tamang.

One of the driving forces behind this rise in demand has been the popularity of one specific noodle dish, known in Bouddha as dried noodles. This dish closely resembles a traditional dish from Wuhan, China, called reganiman.

Unlike soup noodles, this noodle dish is dry. Noodles are served mixed with Chinese sauce, spices and topped with minced meat, bok choi and chopped green onions. Until early 2017, the dish was served at a handful of local eateries in Boudha. “The dish started gaining popularity after food bloggers in the Capital started featuring the dish extensively. Today, a lot of eateries in Bouddha and beyond serve the dish, increasing the demand for freshly-made noodles, which is good for us because we operate on very narrow profit margins,” says Tamang.

Tamang’s clients include restaurants not only from Bouddha, but also from other parts of the city. “What was once a dish that was consumed only by people from the Himalayan region, noodles have today become a dish that’s consumed widely across cultures. It makes me happy to know that factories like us have played some role in this,” says Tamang.

(Photos: Kabin Adhikari)

Published: 07-02-2019 09:00

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