Monday, November 6, 2017

Smells of Heaven
A Mustard Oil Mill in Khokana

by Utkristha Mulmi and Anita Bhattarai
Photographs by Eena Shrestha, Utkristha Mulmi and Anita Bhattarai

Photo credit, Anita Bhattarai.
We were hiking when we came across a mill where they were making mustard oil. We decided to go inside and see what we could learn. It was hot inside. The mill was a big hall, dim, almost dark, maybe because of the smoke and the oil. There was a ton of machines, sacks of mustard seeds and many bottles of oil on shelves and on the floor.

Photo credit, Utkrishta Mulmi.
The people let us see around and appreciated our curiosity. When we did not know, Bipin Dangol the salesperson, Hari Wagdas and Kaji Lal Maharjan, who worked there, were friendly and welcoming and wanted to give us their time. This was great, as sometimes, when we hike, the people are not all that friendly. The people at the mill let us look at everything and explained and answered our questions kindly and in detail.

We met the chairperson of the cooperative that runs the mill, Tirtha Ram Khokana, who told us the story of the mill. “There were four very old oil mills in the ancient Newari settlement of Khokana, they had been operational for centuries. They all shut down because of low production, lot of manual labour, and high price of the pure mustard oil they produced.”

Photo credit, Anita Bhattarai.
Mr. Khokana continues, “UNESCO saw the cultural and historical importance of these mills and helped our community cooperative so we could at least keep one mill operational. There was a problem because youth were not interested due to the low profits, hard work and lack of hope and we had to involve them. Our community has several cooperatives and ours has 152 members. We sold the oil we produced to ourselves and our workers first and then to the neighbours who could see firsthand how we work.”

Because neighbours, friends, Nepalese and international visitors to the historically important Khokana settlement were all welcomed by the staff of the mill, their work was really transparent and easy to understand. The purity and naturalness of their product could be vouched for as everything takes placed in a big hall in front of anyone who walks in.

We went to look at how the machine that crushes mustard seeds worked first. High quality mustard seeds, a lot of it produced by the community was placed in the machine. Once the high quality mustard seeds came through the machine, the little round red-purple-brown mustard seeds were flat with their yellow bellies open and flattened for us to see. “I got oil on my hands when pressing the crushed mustard seed,” Utu explains. “The smell of mustard was strong and some people really love the aroma.”

Photo credit, Utkrishta Mulmi.

The mustard seeds of plant brassica juncea that were now crushed were taken to a vat heated over a wood fire. “It takes a lot of time to roast the seeds and this factory only produces roasted mustard oil,” Hari Wagdas told us as he stirred the mustard seeds being roasted. “There are other factories that make oil from raw seeds.”

Photo credit, Anita Bhattarai.
Mr. Wagdas emptied the roasted mustard seeds into a big metal sack that was shaped like a funnel and flattish probably because it’d been pressed a million times. The metal sack woven using metal flat strips was then placed in between huge blocks of wood, actually trunks of huge trees cut into enormous blocks by the axe. Mr. Kaji Lal Maharjan started pressing them together using a big wheel that goes around. He would hang from the wooden handles, he could half climb on them. It was impressive, the amount of strength that was required to press the oil, a technological invention used for many hundreds of years in Nepal.

Photo credit, Anita Bhattarai.
As the two enormous blocks of wood crushed the metal sack with the roasted seeds, oil was squeezed out and collected at the bottom where it flowed into an aluminium container. Again and again Kaji Lal Maharjan would push, climb, hang by the wooden wheel squeezing as much as possible out of the seeds. It was all very primitive. The aluminium container was almost full. “The collected oil is left of sediment for four days after filtering,” we were told by Bipin Dangol. “Then the oil is skimmed for floating solids and bubbles, the cleaner liquid put into bottles for sale and the sediment used for other purposes,” he told us.

Photo credit, Eena Shrestha.

In the meanwhile, the metal sack was released from between the wooden blocks, taken out and emptied of its now well squeezed contents and the solid leftovers put into a more modern oil press so even more oil could be squeezed out.

“Not all oil is the same,” Tirtha Ram Dangol, chairman of the cooperative that runs the mill, tells us. “There is adulteration, modern processing that takes away some of the naturalness. The government and the bureau of standards need to educate the people. The opening of many commercial establishments that produce in large quantities and used different chemicals and processes have led to prices that threaten these centuries old mills.”

We looked at the solids left over. Once all the oil was squeezed out, the remaining solid is used as hair and beauty product, fertilizer on the very healthy fields of Khokana and other places and feed for animals. Women of Nepal call the left over solids peena and use it on their hair and body for its nutritious, warming and conditioning values. It is believed that Goddess Parbati created Lord Ganesh from the peena solids of mustard after bathing with it! No wonder one of South East Asia’s best loved gods is so strong and good.

Photo credit, Eena Shrestha, top. Anita Bhattarai, middle. Utkrishta Mulmi, bottom.

We were very thankful to the oil mill for taking the time to explain and show us everything so well. We bought two bottles of freshly crushed oil from the first lot. While Bipin Dangol, the salesperson, wanted us to buy the sedimented oil, we wanted the first batch of freshly squeezed roasted mustard oil straight from the aluminium container!

“Once we had a base market, we went to the co-operatives of Bhaktapur, Lalitpur, and Kathmdnu and said that we had pure oil and that they could buy for their own good health and the good health of their families and customers. They too believed in us and now we have enough money to keep running the place,” Laxman Maharjan, told us. 

Roasted mustard oil give food a distinct rich taste and is used to fry eggs, make bara of lentils, make haku choila (meat roasted over coal fire until its outside turns black and made very spicy with mouth burning chilly dust, chives). It is also used for massaging babies and older people because mustard on the skin releases heat through faster blood flow in capillaries. The oil of this quality with no adulteration and hand processed is a rarity.

Though unassuming, we had just visited one of oil factories that Khokana is famous for. “I found the process of pressing the oil, the huge handles that only strong people can use, and the massive wood trunks very impressive. I had never seen such processes or equipment before,” Anita said. “I wish Nepalese people would use a lot more roasted mustard oil and help the one remaining mill in Khokana do better economically.”

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