One can pick up the aroma of mustard oil cooking hundreds of feet away in Khokana. It’s evident that at first, you will find yourself following the strong scent to gradually transcend to your own memories of tori-ko-tel.
The scent of a place is often warped in memories. Here, in Khokana, the scent of tori has again taken me back to my childhood memories. I can actually still hear myself silently sulking inside the blue van, wishing for the road to never end, because I would be returned to my hostel after my holidays, and my hostel was perched at the end of this road. But, often on these trips, I would gaze out of the van’s small window to the green fields and the tori-ko-bari, and sometimes during the monsoon, I would find men and women busy in ropai. This was Khokhana, a place I had a love-and-hate relationship with even at the tender age of twelve. Hate, because I would have to return to my hostel, and love, because the local people were friendly and the sweet aroma of tori always made me feel closer to home.
As we would drive into Khokana, the strong scent of tori would whiff through the mud houses. And I would feel more home-sick already, because I would be lingering over the taste of hakku-chhoela and kachhila as tori-ko-tel was used for making these non-veg newari delicacies during Nakhatyas at home. My father enjoyed the smell of tori, and often while cooking, he would tell me with pride (as though he had made the tori-ko-tel himself), “Tori-ko-tel is our Nepali oil, and it’s very healthy; you are thinking it smells, but this is not an odor, it’s an aroma. Wrap yourself into it, and you will understand why I am saying what I am saying.”
On winter holidays, when I would come back home to enjoy the sun on the terrace, my hajurma would massage me and my cousins’ hair with tori-ko-tel. She would also give my little baby brother a body massage, explaining to me how tori-ko-tel is even good for the bones. However, those idle afternoons have long been left behind.
This time here in Khohana, I and my friend entered this ancient town searching for its tori mills to write a story on them. It wasn’t really that hard, but we both found ourselves adrift with our sun-dried memories. Kanchha Maharjan seemed to understand our nostalgia attached with the scent of tori that wafted strongly from his tori mill: Gaabu Jyaasha Tel Mill. He let us be for a while, and then gradually started telling his story.
“I reopened this factory after almost 30 years,” he says. As a boy, he enjoyed the smell of tori, he tells me the scent is his childhood. Originally, Gaabu Jyaasha Tel Mill had 144 stakeholders from his community, and one of the stakeholders was his father. But, later, it closed down, as the stakeholders went their different ways. For almost 30 years, the mill was abandoned, but Kanchha Maharjan wanted to continue what his family had been doing years ago; he believes his work is an inheritance that he should continue, a culture that needs longevity. “I have taken this place on lease for 10 years; this is my third year, but I don’t know what will happen after seven more years, because I have realized that this business is very difficult. It’s not easy to run a tori-mill. The cost is rather too expensive, but it certainly gives me a sense of satisfaction for now.”
And it’s true; in recent years, bazaars offer a larger variety of oils: sunflower, olive, and mustard. Even Khokana’s tori-ko-tel is more accessible, as more and more private tori mills open within houses. Khokana’s tori-ko-tel today has a depleting number of customers. There was a time when tori-ko-tel used to be exchanged for tori itself. Local sellers would balance jerry cans filled with Khokana’s tori-ko-tel and carry them to houses, where they would be exchanged for tori. “When you have a big market, we don’t realize which oil is the best; everyone is promoting their oils as the best. But, the way I see it, there is a lot of grey in this business. Most people mix oils and sell them in the market,” says Maharjan.
Tori mills are dependent on tori from Nepal, India, China, and Bangladesh. “The mills don’t just depend on the Nepali tori, if such was the case, tori would be more expensive. We use imported toris to make the oil. Tori-ko-bari has seemingly disappeared, as you can see for yourself,” says Maharjan.
As I sit there in his factory, I am overwhelmed by the strong scent of tori, and the tori-ko-mill becomes a muse for me. Leaving my memories to play at the back of my mind, I start observing the process of tori-ko-tel making. Shumsher Ale Magar, one of Kanchha Maharjan’s workers, is busy burning the tori in the bhatti (burner, previously called hadi). He is at ease, as he shovels and stirs the grinded mustard seed on the hot pan.
His next step involves pouring the hot grinded mustard seed on to a metal bag with pores, which resembles a doko. Once the metal bag is filled, Anil Maharjan, another worker in the Gaabu Jyasa Mill, steps on to the huge steering and unscrews the traditional oil press for Ale to slowly slip in the metal bag in between the large wooden planks. When he is done, Anil tightens the steering, as I watch the oil oozing out from a small tap below the kol. “Before the 1934 earthquake, we had four of these kols (traditional wooden oil presses); the one you are seeing here is one of the oldest wooden presses. The locals worship this oil press as Bhairav, while the hadi is worshipped as Agni devata, and the kol is worshipped as Mahankal. Every year in the month of Baisakh, the locals worships the Bhairav that resides in this factory, and partake of a heavy Newari feast,“ says Kanchha Maharjan
Khokana’s tori-ko-tel is famous all around Kathmandu. The Newars still go hunting for pure tori-ko-tel in bazaars to make delicacies like saag, wah, baara, choela, kachhila, and more. It is said that a tori-ko-tel merchant once went to Chobar Ganesthan, where he had rubbed the oil on the body of Ganesh, asking for his blessings. Pleased, Ganesh had blessed him, saying, “Khokhana’s tori-ko-tel will always flourish,” and so it does even today. Although the number of customers is decreasing, those who know the taste of tori have always returned to the flavor. Perhaps this number includes people like my father, who enjoys the scent of tori with a sense of pride.
As Kanchha Maharjan puts it, “This strong scent of Khokana’s tori is the smell of my childhood.” This holds true for many Nepalis, Khokana’s tori is indeed filled with memories.