Harvest Hymns

Food Issue 157 Dec, 2014

Every winter, when I watch my mom make yomaris on Yomari Punhi my dad tells me a story that never gets old. I play dumb even though I hear the story from him every year. While my mom dabs the cone rice dough with the tip of her finger and start molding a hole to it, I am lost in his orations.

According to folklore, children went from doorstep to doorstep singing the song ‘tyo sin tyo’ to get yomaris on the day of Yomari Punhi. Yomari is a confection made to celebrate the plentiful harvest for that year. Families came together to make yomaris; pots simmered hot water, rooms filled up with the strong flavor of sesame seeds mixed to chaku (molasses) and cheers and claps echoed in the alleys. “This festival wasn’t always this quiet,” he reminds me every year. 

“Long ago, people’s wealth was not measured in coins, rather through the winter store they had in the bhakari (granary). The bhakari was worshipped with yomari at the end of every rainy season. In those days, every household had bhakaris “my dad would begin. The word bhakari seemed strange to me because when I started celebrating Yomari Punhi no one really mentioned it. My grandmother, used to make the Ma: yo and Ba: yo, the designated protectors of the bhakari for Yomari Punhi with rice dough. The first lot in the steamer was always separated for the bhakari. Although we enjoy yomari as a winter delicacy, in days of yore, yomari was everyone’s favorite treat savored after long ardors of harvest.  

Now-a-days, winter comes and goes. And the forgotten stories of the Yomari Punhi are rarely revisited. ‘Tyo sin tyo’ actually is derived from the word ‘Tahasil tyo.’ In past feudal societies, farmers were taxed two third of their harvest by the landlords (Tahasil). A system also lost (thankfully) to modernization. The absence of this practice could be why the thread linking us to this tradition became obscure. We no longer have landlords that we need to answer to and neither do children call us to our doorsteps to share our harvest with them. 

Instead, we have made various improvisations to the yomaris we make. The popular Newar cuisine now has various contemporary flavors. The Village Café in Pulchowk, which for years has been specializing in yomari, has been delivering a variety of flavors that have been slowly gaining popularity. 

Chandra Maya Maharjan of The Village Café is swift with her hands. I gazed at her in amusement as she drilled her finger into the dough to fill it with khuwa.”The fillings inside the yomari can be different; we usually try five kinds of fillings: Khuwa, chaku, chocolate, black lentil and mushroom” says Chandra Maya. “When I was small, we didn’t even make the chaku paste, we just tucked the chaku piece in and wrapped it inside the fig,” she further adds. The women of The Village Café were busy giving shapes to the yomaris. A perfect yomari always has a tapered end and this is the biggest challenge. “We try to play with the tail than the tip, then it’s much easier to tell which yomari has what filling” says Chandra Maya as she wraps the rice dough in a clover shape to denote it as one filled with khuwa.

Yomari has always been synonymous with molasses, at least for me. The whiff of h?mo (sesame seeds) when mixed with chaku always sends me down memory lane: my attempts at filling the fig greedily with excess chaku and my mom scolding me over it. It’s always a mess in the kitchen when I try my hand at it. Although it tastes bitter-sweet, for some reason, I just love gulping down chaku filled yomaris. However, the new flavors of yomari seem to be threatening the old values of making yomari.  “Yomari as a ubiquitous local Newar cuisine is in danger of losing its significance but that is exactly where our challenge lies, over time things have to change. But in the process, if we can take the essence of Yomari Punhi with us, I think just that will help us keep the tradition going,” says Alok Tuladhar, Director of the documentary  ‘Yomari Ya Bakhan’ (‘Story of the Yomari’).  

 It is wonderful to see yomaris beginning to appear in menus at restaurants around the capital. It gives the denizens the opportunity to enjoy the delicacy all year round and in different variations. Yet the essence of the confection is enhanced when made together as families and communities in a winter ritual. Every year I have dreaded the possibility of my mom saying, “making yomaris is tiring, let’s not make it this year.”  Every year, it seems closer to becoming a reality. 

Which is why, I am resolved to mark this winter’s celebration with added vim and gusto.  The landlords might be gone, the harvest songs might have been forgotten, but while the yomari still brims with dark delight, dig in and rejoice!

Yomari and its forgotten songs.

‘Tyo sin tyo, bak: sin tyo 
Lata Pata Kule Chan
Tyo Sin Tyo.
Yomari Chwamu ukke dunni hakku
Beu mah lyasi, mah
beuma budi cha
Chhimi nah chiku, jhimi nah
chiku, yakna byu jhimtah’.

The rich have been blessed
and as have the poor
the mad and the sane
both better off than before
the sweet yomari now brims with dark delight
the generous are beautiful; hoarders a sorry sight
we all are shivering in the cold today
bless us and we’ll be on our merry way