Try ‘neera’, the nectar from palm trees
At Kadthal mandal in Ranga Reddy district of Telangana, the chittering of crickets reached a crescendo as the sun started to peep out through the clouds. Situated on the way to the Srisailam dam, the village of about 2,000 people has vast agricultural lands amidst beautiful rock formations. In the village, inside a small house is the Palm Products Research and Development Institute (PRDI), with a mission to promote products made from palm trees. Right now PRDI is gearing up to introduce neera, the unfermented nectar from the palm trees . Neera is sweet with a mild aroma of the ripe palm fruit. Being an unfermented fresh juice, neera is non-alcoholic and therefore suitable for consumption by all from young children to the elderly. However, neera has a short shelf life (at 4 degrees, it can stay up to five days). Once fermented, it can be sold as toddy only by toddy tappers as it contains 4 % of alcohol according to the the excise rule of Telangana. PRDI will sell bottled unfermented neera as Teneera.
| Photo Credit: special arrangement
Other works of PRDI include research, development, implementation and popularising various edible and non-edible products of palm trees so that it benefits rural employment generation.
The Prohibition and Excise Department of Telangana State, through a GO, has passed a Neera Policy to help the toddy tappers make the most of their arduous and risky job of climbing the trees to tap the palm juice. The policy seeks to promote neera as a health drink and provide employment to the Goud community that has traditionally depended on tapping for a livelihood.
PRDI has devised a method to delay the fermenting of the palm nectar. To demonstrate the method, they take me to the fields where specially designed pots made of food-grade plastic are hung from the trees. V Vinod Goud, Director General of PRDI says, “Before the specialised pots are hung on the trees for nectar collection, they are readied with frozen ice gel packs and a nectar collection plastic bag (food grade). The gel packs keep the neera cool to prevent fermentation.”
At the farm, 55-year-old Yadaiah climbs a tree and calls out to those on the ground to witness the extraction of the neera, a light brownish clear liquid.
Once the packets are brought down, the liquid is poured into a chilled vessel. Satyam V Director, PRDI explains, “Here, the first stage of filtering takes place. Neera is filtered through sieves so that ants and dry leaves if any, are thrown out. After that, it goes through a PH test and then a crystallisation test.”
The specially made pots
| Photo Credit: Prabalika M Borah
For the PH test, a few drops of neera are dropped on a digital instrument called PH meter. We are told that a reading less than 6 is base and greater than 7 is acidic. The reading of this fresh neera sample showed 6.9, indicating it is neutral. This is followed by passing the neera through a Brix Refractometer to look for sucrose content. The neera is then poured into glasses for us; it is sweet and tastes of palm candy in taste.
The collected neera is taken in containers that have ice blocks or gel packs. PRDI provides all the necessary equipment including gel packs, collection pots and chilled carrier jars with the support of the Telangana Government. Assistant Superintendent, Excise Hanumanth Rao says, “We want to promote this product as a health drink. We have all necessary certification and test reports that shows neera’s anti-oxidant and mineral properties.”
At PRDI, the neera goes through a mechanical filtration method at 8 degrees, and is then passed into another chamber where it is kept at 4° centigrade. . From this point, till the neera reaches a customer in a bottle, the drink has to be maintained at 4° Centigrade.
“By positioning neera as a non-alcoholic drink in the market, we want to showcase the strong presence of palm trees in our state. We can conserve and nurture palm trees only through active local participation,” explains Satyam.
the neera right after it is extracted from the pots
| Photo Credit: Prabalika M Borah
How is neera transported from the collection point? Excise superintendent Ravinder Rao says, “We are putting in place a cold chain process for transportation of neera. The method is similar to the one used to transport milk. We are also coming up with a neera cafe on Necklace Road, Hyderabad where packaged neera will be sold.”
PRDI is currently testing the ground and also educating consumers about the difference between neera and toddy. “We are selling the drinks at food events at Hitex, at government functions and at private catering events. The response is good though, we need to explain to people the difference between neera and toddy,” says Satyam.