Madhu’s Seeds

Mustard Seeds Darjee
Illustration by Ram Darjee

An essay for spring published in  New Hampshire Home‘s back page feature “At Home in New Hampshire.”

Madhu’s Seeds

by Terry Farish

Madhu Bhandari tells me, “When I bring the greens home from the garden, that is the best thing.”

I am in her home in downtown Concord where she lives with her husband; her children, including her grown son Nilhari and daughter-in-law Devika; and grandchild, Neeja.Devika sits with us and translates for Madhu, who speaks Nepali. Dressed in turquoise trousers and a white shirt, Madhu is “wearing pote,” glass pote beads around her neck that say she is married.

“What kind of greens?” I ask.

“Mustard,” she says. She plants mustard seeds and harvests the leaves three times in a New Hampshire growing season in Sycamore Community Garden.Not in rows, she explains. That makes the seeds dry out. With the mustard greens, she makes gundruk— fermented mustard leaves that she keeps in a baggie all year long for gundruk soup.

In Bhutan, Madhu used to grow sugar cane with her family. She remembers the processing steps and taking the sugar to sell in the market at Dagapela. She grew mustard and spices for cooking: ginger, coriander, garlic, onions, dill.

When the government of Bhutan adopted the “One Nation, One People” policy, the Bhandaris lost their home and their growing fields. They were expelled from Bhutan and settled in a refugee camp in Nepal.

For eighteen years—before Neeja was born, before Devika and Nilhari married—Madhu lived in the refugee camp with her husband and children. Every two weeks, they received food supplies from the United Nations. The refugees didn’t grow any of their foods in the camps. They were farmers with no land.

They waited in the camps for a political resolution to allow them to return to their farm. None came. In 2008, the Bhandari family was resettled by Lutheran Social Services to Concord.

In 2009, Sycamore Community Garden opened. Madhu was offered one of the first fifty-four plots on the edge of the New Hampshire Technical Institute campus beside Fort Eddy Pond. After eighteen years in Nepal and a year in a Concord apartment, Madhu began to cultivate a patch of land.

With Neeja in her arms, Madhu goes to the kitchen. She returns with a yellow cloth that she unties to show a mound of mustard seeds. She also brings a plastic bag of small dried strips, gundruk.

She invites me to taste, and I do. It is pungent and sharp.Devika—who wears long black boots and a sweater dress, and does not wear pote—explains gundruk. Madhu chops the leaves into strips and ferments them with garlic, turmeric and fennel for about seven weeks. She gives me a small bag of gundruk, and Devika writes a recipe for gundruk soup so I—an Irish-American—can add it to my repertoire of various potato and tomato soups.

Madhu lost her family farm in Bhutan but she says, in a master ful summing up of her resilient nature, “I can make gundruk here.” Neeja, wearing her pink, sparkling tennis shoes, will grow up American, not on a farm in Bhutan. But because of the garden, she will also grow up knowing how to ferment mustard greens to make gundruk soup. She will grow up with a Bhutanese grandmother who, in the winter, keeps a man’s palm-full of mustard seeds tied in a yellow, cotton cloth, ready to scatter in the spring garden in New Hampshire. She will grow up sustained by her ancestors.

Devika Bhandari’s Gundruk Soup

Boil two potatoes. Mash.
Cut ½ onion into small pieces.
Chop 2 tomatoes into small pieces.
Put oil in a cooking pan and fry the onion until it gets brown.
Add the washed gundruk and chopped tomatoes with a little water.
When the tomatoes are tender, add the mashed potato and a little water.
Let it boil. For seasoning, add ginger, garlic and coriander leaves at the very end.

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