Tara Bhattarai, GPJ Nepal
Nepal

Villagers of Khokana are trying to save the traditional oil mill in spite of continuing financial losses.

KHOKANA, NEPAL – The cold winter wind carries the strong, spicy smell of mustard oil through the narrow streets of Khokana, a village in the Kathmandu Valley.

 

The fragrance comes from the one-room brick building that houses the village’s traditional mustard oil mill. Inside, a woman and four men from the village are busy working.

 

First, they sift the mustard seeds in a bamboo tray. Next, they slow-roast the seeds in a large pan over an open hearth. After, they put the seeds and a small quantity of water in a pouch between two horizontal beams.

 

Next, the workers push the heavy wooden beams toward each other to crush the seeds. Finally, they gather the oil that seeps out in a large bowl under the pouch.

 

This is the mildly spicy mustard oil from Khokana that is prized across the country.

 

“The crushing of the seeds to produce oil is a traditional method since the time of our forefathers,” says Siddhisharan Maharjan, vice president of the Sikali Multipurpose Cooperative, which runs the mill. “We think it is our responsibility to follow the tradition set by our forefathers. Therefore, we are continuing it.”

Khokana, home to fewer than 5,000 people, is a village of Newars, an indigenous group, in Lalitpur district. Newars here have been making mustard oil by hand for more than five centuries, Maharjan says.

“We at Khokana neither trust the machine-produced sunflower and soybean oil nor like the taste,” Maharjan says, referring to the more widely used types of cooking oil in Nepal. “We only use the [mustard] oil produced in [the] traditional manner, with our own hands.”

From ancient times, mustard oil has been considered both delicious and healthy, Maharjan says. Nepalese continue to value it as a health food, using it to treat high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. They depend on it to cure earaches and skin conditions. They also employ it as a massage oil, especially for new mothers and infants, to make the skin smooth and supple.

But the village’s traditional system of producing mustard oil is under threat.

Until two decades ago, villagers operated eight traditional mustard oil mills, Maharjan says. Now, they operate only one.

It is the only large-scale mustard oil mill that uses traditional methods to produce oil for sale in Nepal.

Gangalal Dangol, an officer of the Khokana Village Development Committee, the local government administrative body, confirms the mill’s significance.

“Large-scale traditional mills are not found in other parts of the country,” he says. “Khokana’s identity lies in its oil production.”

Khokana has been famous for its mustard oil since ancient times, he says.

The country’s royal families used Khokana oil, says Satya Mohan Joshi, former director of the Department of Archaeology and an author on Nepalese culture, in a phone interview. In ancient times, the villagers even paid their taxes with mustard oil instead of money.

The elders of Khokana believe the cultivation of mustard and production of the oil started when the Newars settled in the Kathmandu Valley 500 years ago, says Madan Krishna Dangol, a former chairman of the Khokana Village Development Committee. The villagers grew the mustard and operated the oil mill collectively.

Khokana oil became so popular that Nepalese living in other communities emulated the villagers by building small wooden mills in their homes, Maharjan says. Families used these portable mills, which pressed roasted mustard between two wooden beams, to make small amounts of oil for their personal use. This practice is no longer prevalent, but mustard oil from Khokana is still famous throughout the country.  

Fifteen years ago, though, a drop in the region’s mustard production threatened to close the Khokana oil mill, Gangalal Dangol says.

Traditionally, the villagers grew some of the mustard seeds they needed in Khokana and bought the rest from farmers in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur – the three districts that constitute the Kathmandu Valley, Madan Krishna Dangol says. Over the past two decades, however, expanding urban areas have overtaken farm fields, reducing the amount of land available for growing mustard.

Until some 15 years ago, Nepal produced all the mustard seeds it needed, says Ajaya Parajuli, executive secretary of the Association of Nepalese Rice, Oil & Pulses Industry, in a phone interview. But now, with less land dedicated to agriculture, Nepal imports 80 percent of the mustard seeds it needs for oil production from India, France, Australia and Russia. Most of Nepal’s mustard oil is processed at 20 modern mills.

Khokana’s traditional mill now imports mustard from the Nepalese districts of Chitwan, Nuwakot and Parsa as well as India, Maharjan says.

In 2002, in a bid to save the oil mill, the villagers of Khokana established the Sikali Multipurpose Cooperative, Gangalal Dangol says. And in May 2008, 540 members of the cooperative invested 2.5 million rupees ($25,730) into a fund to run the mill.

Until two decades ago, about 150 villagers earned their living working in the Khokana mills and selling the mustard oil door to door in the Kathmandu Valley, Madan Krishna Dangol says.

Today, only five villagers work in the lone mill.

Because making oil by the traditional method is costly, the Khokana mill incurs a loss of 250,000 rupees ($2,570) every year, Gangalal Dangol says.

It takes 3.5 kilograms (7.7 pounds) of mustard seeds to produce one liter (0.3 gallons) of oil, Maharjan says. The mill co-op must spend up to 235 rupees ($2.40) for the mustard seeds needed to produce that liter, which retails for 240 rupees ($2.50). Mustard oil produced in modern mills sells for 200 rupees ($2.05) a liter. Other cooking oils, such as soybean and sunflower, sell for 150 rupees ($1.50) a liter.

The cost of producing mustard oil by modern methods varies from mill to mill but averages about 182 rupees ($1.90) per liter, Parajuli says.

Despite the ongoing operating losses, villagers in Khokana continue to produce their famous oil.

“If the mill was operated by a single person, it would have been difficult to bear the loss,” Gangalal Dangol says. “As the mill is run through the cooperative and the loss is distributed to all its members, none of the members have dissented on continuing the traditional occupation.”

Each year, the 540 members of the Sikali co-op convene to discuss the mill operation and debate whether to raise the price of the oil, Gangalal Dangol says. The majority of members are in favor, but others fear it would make the oil too expensive for even Khokana villagers, especially the elderly. The village originally started making the oil only for the villagers to use – not to sell – so community members do not see it as a business. The co-op plans to make a decision at its next meeting, scheduled for May 2014.

Joshi says the village maintains its commitment to the mill despite low production.

“Even in the present day, the locals of Khokana are conserving their culture by operating the oil mill in a traditional manner,” Joshi says. “They have united to conserve their tradition and culture. However, they have not been able to produce oil as per the market demand.”

Parajuli puts Nepal’s demand for cooking oil of all types at 50,000 metric tons (55,115 short tons) per year.

Khokana’s traditional mill produces less than 50 metric tons (55 short tons) a year, Maharjan says. The traditional labor-intensive method extracts only about 50 percent of the mustard seeds’ oil, compared with modern machine-operated mills that extract 100 percent of the oil.

But extracting oil in the traditional manner gives Khokana oil greater nutritional value and health benefits, says Pushpa Lal Rai, food research officer at the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control of the Ministry of Agricultural Development, in a phone interview. Traditionally produced oils have about 60 percent monounsaturated fatty acids, a healthy type of fat.

Traditionally produced mustard oil combats heart disease and helps to prevent certain cancers, Rai says. It also has high levels of vitamin E, which slows the aging process of the skin and, when applied directly to the skin, shields against the sun.  

Longtime users of Khokana’s mustard oil attest to its benefits.

Nilima Maharjan, 65, says she travels to Khokana to buy the mustard oil. She finds that it does not spoil over time, unlike other oils, so she uses it at her Newari restaurant in Lalitpur. She also uses the oil at home.

“I will use the oil from Khokana until I die,” she says. “I will use only this oil on my hair and body.”

Gangalal Dangol, as a member of the Khokana Village Development Committee, has asked the local government for funds to conserve and to renovate the oil mill each year for three years. Lacking funds, the government has repeatedly denied the request.

“If the local residents do not operate this mill, we might lose our identity,” he says.

Most of Khokana’s younger men and women now opt to enter other professions after they complete their education, he says.

But Siddhisharan Maharjan is confident that the next generation will continue to operate the mill, just as their ancestors have done for hundreds of years.

“The oil mill is like a real-life museum on the identity of the Newar civilization, its culture, and its ethnic identity and uniqueness,” he says. “We have been working together to preserve it.  We will continue doing it.”

No sources in this article are related.

GPJ translated this article from Nepali.