Sesame oil from Navaly: 120 years of tradition | Sunday Observer

Sesame oil from Navaly: 120 years of tradition

Other photos show the mill equipment
Other photos show the mill equipment

Oil has been used in cooking for centuries in every culture. Today, there are various strains of oil in the market. For the housewives of the Northern Province their choice has always been sesame seed oil, or as they say “nallennai “(meaning good oil). Those using this oil in cities outside Jaffna refer to this product as ‘gingili oil’ (the origin of this term remains uncertain).

During my visit to Jaffna I was keen to visit an oil mill that produced this ancient oil. We made many inquiries, and finally connected with a gentleman from the Labour Department who kindly guided us to visit the remote village of Navaly. The drive to Navaly is serene, as we pass through fields cultivated with small red onions. As we drive further we encounter vast areas of uninhabited land decorated with palmyrah trees. The heat is quite intense. After reaching a sand road we turn into a by lane and the aroma of sesame oil dominates the air. At the entrance to the oil mill is a large granite stone, once used in production. Some dogs begin to bark heralding our presence. A man clad in sarong, bare bodied motions us to come.

Thangaratnam is 52 years old. His family has been at this location for 120 years, operating a small oil extraction mill. His hands are covered in oil and he apologizes for his inability to shake hands with us, which creates ripples of laughter and creates a bond. He explains, “Sir, my grandparents ran this mill, later my father took over. As you may know, many years ago we used the services of some bulls. The bulls worked hard and helped us. But with time and innovation we were forced to let go of the bulls. At the start hay and grass was purchased for 10 rupees a bundle, but today, it costs 60 rupees, so that is an extra cost. Besides, the bulls require much care, and need space to graze and rest”.

For the past few years Thangaratnam has turned to the help of a motor- mechanical device (somewhat similar to a hand held tractor). This device has replaced the circular rotation of the robust bulls.

The centre of the garden has a large ‘chekku’ or oil extraction well, built with wood. In the past this was built with solid granite that was chiseled by hand. The wood based container is buried into the ground. Within it is the main grinding apparatus of the ckekku-a thick wooden pole.

This pole is connected by a fulcrum, which then extends about seven feet and is bound to the mechanical-mini tractor. Once in operation the tiny tractor goes around in circulation causing the sesame seeds to be crushed at a steady rhythm, releasing virgin oil. The oil, black in colour is collected at the base in a plastic bucket. Thangaratnam explains, “One out of 20 kilograms of sesame seeds into the well. After two hours of pressing, we get about 14 bottles of oil. We send this oil to the traders who then filter it many times, and get the nice clear brown oil. Today, a bottle of sesame oil is sold here for 600 rupees, I think it’s more costly in Colombo?” As Terry and I observe this amazing and meticulous operation we are joined by a man cld in a dark pink T- shirt. He introduces himself ‘Good morning brother, I am Suresh. I am a mechanic and I sometimes help Thangaratnam anna (anna, means elder brother) to service the motor. Those days we had bulls here”.

Sustaining this century old tradition comes with many challenges. One of them is the hard and demanding physical operation. Though Thangaratnam is in his early fifties he looks much older. He explains, ‘With the time and cost of my labour I don’t make a big profit. On the one hand I am proud to maintain this age old production. People here love to cook with sesame oil. But I don’t make a lavish profit from my work. Besides, today I have to incur diesel costs, to operate my motor”.

We walk to the back garden where he points to a massive log that has been felled. This log will be chiseled by hand and made into the “grinding pin”- which can then be used for a year. Previously, these things were made with granite that lasted years, but today, there are no skilled workmen to cut and make them. Thangaratnam adds, “Sesame oil has many health benefits - Sesame oil is known to be an effective treatment for wounded and inflamed skin. It contains anti-inflammatory properties that enable them to fight bacterial infections. As you grow old, sesame oil can assist you in avoiding osteoporosis and numerous other age-related weaknesses in the bones. I believe it is common in city life? If you wish to enjoy the benefits of lower blood pressure level, you should add sesame oil to your diet daily. It is good for frying food. Also copper is a key mineral that helps fight swelling and reduces pain associated with arthritis. In addition, the mineral also helps add strength to your bones, joints, and blood vessels.

Sesame oil is filled with ingredients that are capable of providing a silky texture to your skin. The presence of fatty acids makes them an effective moisturizer for the skin. They are also rich in vitamin E, D and B complex which reduces scars and other rashes on the skin. Sesame oil forms a protective film over the skin to eliminate the damages done by free radicals. If you are trying to avoid chemical sunscreens, applying sesame oil on your skin would be a great idea”. I was surprised at the knowledge of this humble villager.

As we get ready to leave the mill, a very senior citizen cycles in. Sporting long grey hair and a flamboyant beard he resembles a sage, but is clad in khaki shorts. He is a regular customer, who tells me that sesame oil has kept him in great health.

I politely ask him his age, he smiles and declines to answer asking me to guess his age. This comment manifests in another round of laughter. The old hermit like citizen cycles away. As he disappears down the road I wonder if this ancient art of oil production will also fade away in the years to come. 

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