Mass-produced and branded mustard oil is readily available at grocery shops now. Packaged in PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottles they look more refined than what our grandparents used to buy from Ghani – the ox-cart driven oil mill.
And yet, the health-conscious consumers still prefer collecting mustard seeds themselves and have the oil extracted in mills. Why is that?
Last year, the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution suspended licenses of four mustard oil brands, allegedly for supplying substandard and adulterated products.
People care about the purity of their food. To relieve them of their worries, several small manufacturers have started mobile vending machines that sell mustard oil.
Manik Chandra Dey, a businessman in Gazipur, launched such a machine last year. Initially, he invested Tk1.5 lakh and bought a mini oil mill – a customised expeller run by diesel tiller.
To make it mobile, Manik employed his old mini-truck and named the venture Banaphul Oil. The truck travels to different areas in Dhaka city on different days.
This correspondent recently came across the truck at Jashim Uddin intersection at Uttara. The machine was vibrating, creating a loud sound like a power tiller. The air in the surrounding area was filled with the strong scent of mustard oil.
Afjal Hossain, the 55-year-old manager of Banaphul Oil, was jotting down sales records in his small diary. The trucker-cum-mechanic of the expeller stood nearby.
Afjal's assistant was pouring a certain amount of mustard seeds into the feeder set atop the mill. Mustard seeds were being squeezed by rolling bars and pressing screws inside a caged barrel-like cavity.
Within a few minutes, the dark yellow oil started seeping through the discharge point at the bottom.
Afterward, the pressed seeds were transformed into hardened cakes, locally called khail. Afjal's assistant poured the cakes into the feeder. He did this twice.
The extracted oil was collected in a plastic bucket. After filtering the oil through a gamcha – a traditional thin cotton towel – the final product was preserved in PET bottles of different sizes while the oil cakes were kept in a sack for sale.
After three days of keeping under the sun, the oil would be edible for at least six months.
Lutfar Rahman, a service provider at an Uttara-based private organisation, was carefully watching how the machine worked. He then purchased a one-litre bottle.
Usually, Lutfar collects mustard oil from his hometown in Kishoreganj. For the first time, he would taste the oil he had just purchased from the vending machine.
"I cannot see how branded oil is produced. I am skeptical as it might be contaminated. Here, I have seen the whole process with my own eyes and I can trust this product," Lutfar told The Business Standard.
Afjal sells a litre of mustard oil for Tk200.
"On average, we extract around 100 litres of oil from 350 kilogrammes of mustard seeds. The sale is good. Sometimes there are so many customers that we fail to meet the demand," Afjal said.
To ensure quality, he uses local varieties of mustard seeds.
This correspondent found another vending machine on a pull cart in the capital's Karwan Bazar area. The venture was launched by Shah Alam, a businessman of Mymensingh, a year ago.
Mohammad Aksar, 27, the lone operator and manager of the mobile mill, said he sells 40-45 litres of oil every day.
"The mustard seeds are sourced from Muktagacha upazila in Mymensingh. Oil is extracted in front of the customers and there is no scope for adulteration," Aksar said.
Like Afjal, Aksar also sells the oil for Tk200 per litre. Moreover, the oil cake – a nutritious fodder for fish and poultry – is sold for Tk35 per kg.
Over the last couple of years, mustard oil mobile vending machines have gained popularity. The price of the product is Tk15-20 less than that of the branded products available in the market. Also, the price of the mini oil mill used to be Tk3.5 lakh, which has now come down to less than half of that.