It seems I did well to come. My friend here has been absolutely amazing. He has bent over backwards to make my stay as delightful, comfortable, fun and fruitful as possible, introducing me to people, food, and other things that I would never have met on my own. I really owe him this entire trip.
Every day has been packed full and so I will try and go chronogically. My first day in Lucknow was a series of rickshaw rides as Rajnish took me around the town to show me some of the more lusterous sights. He is from a village near here, originally, although he now grows nagamotha and patchouli in Raipur. But he knows Lucknow well. That was my first taste of Lucknowi chaat.
Next day we went to Kannauj, the traditional and ancient perfumers city. I had heard the rumor, started by someone here in India, in the aromatic business, and for our American ears, that Kannauj was dangerous for foreigners; that we were being attacked and shot in the streets. Sounds like an attempt to deflect our interest in visiting one of the Meccas of perfume. I have wanted to go to Kannauj for about a decade but no longer harbored much hope that I would find the “real” attars, undiluted essential oils. Since so much is adulterated here in India, with “value added” and the like, it’s sometimes necessary to ask adulturation questions in several different ways and even then you may be lied to. For example, if DOP is added directly to the receiver at the very beginning then it’s already there when the sandalwood comes over, right? So you don’t need to add anything else, so, the logic can twist, you are not adulterating the oil. There are an infinite number of ways to deny adulterating an oil, while never actually denying it. Most of the world don’t care, it’s true, and this is only important to a very few of us total geeks. But here I am, one of them, and a fanatical one at that, poking around in such places as Kannauj.
The first place we stopped, Mohammed Afzal, Mohammed Aslam Perfumers, are friends of Rajnish. They made a beautiful shamama attar and dehn al oud. We sat upstairs, in a sparsely furnished reception room, and were served fruit, tea and cookies. Imagine my shock when we were robbed by a rhesus monkey who ran in through the open door, grabbed all our apple slices right out of the dish, and bounded out and over the wall!
We left by car, driving in fits and loud horn honking starts, through Kannauj’s narrow ancient lanes, with our first stop being the Aroma Institute. I had seen this place online and will not bother saying much except that you know sometimes when you have great energy with someone, immediately? And sometimes the opposite happens….So it was here and I can’t even remember the head of the institutes name, but I think we both wanted to beat the other senseless as soon as we met. He was irritating and officious and aggressive. Once he found out I was trained in aromatherapy he began firing off questions at me regarding the process I go through in my head when I make a blend, insisting I quote certain clinical trials to him and acting like he was going to arrest me and sneering at my non-scientific interest, all while texting on his mobile. Anyway, I was removed from his presence at the earliest opportunity and we were given the usual short institute tour. I told Rajnish that if I ever agreed to tour another institute that he should just shoot me.
We had passed a sandalwood distillery on the way and I was slavering to get to it. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that I could see sandalwood distilled. I know the state distillery in Mysore is closed and has been for a long time. I was told by someone the next day that the Karnataka state distillery has been closed for 30 years now.
Off next to one of the local sandalwood distilleries, a man named Kapoor, who supposedly constantly distilled sandalwood but just not at the moment. I found out later that he is a master chemist and well known compounder who can adulturate anything and evade a GC. As we sat in his dim and dark office, looking up his imposing presence from the other side of his desk, he talked about all his massive clients all over the world. Yet that didn’t stop him from telling me he could supply all my sandalwood needs, for an astronomical price of course. He tried very hard to appear generous yet important, and gave me a couple of samples of nagarmotha and sandalwood. He distills sandalwood 11 months out of the year, and had bought his latest wood at the log auction in November. So he should have had some sandalwood around. But the only wood I saw was some of the outer wood from the same tree, the wood with no essential oil, being carved in the courtyard. I hadn’t realized that so much of the sandalwood tree is unusable for aromatics. This must be what many of these sandalwood carvings are made from. And lots of the powder one sees around. Then we went down to have a look at the actual stills and I couldn’t even detect a faint odor of sandalwood. It doesn’t seem like these stills were blazing away only weeks ago. Besides the definite uneasy feeling I got from this man, who reminded me of a creature living in a dark, wet pit, there was nothing at his place to corrospond to him distilling sandalwood or anything else, really. Rajnish wouldn’t even drink the chai he gave us.
Outside, 6 or 7 bearers loaded a truck filled with kegs of rose and kewda water, which I now know goes in Lucknow Biriyanis. On the wall of his office, among the garlanded saints photos, sat a garlanded photo of a kewda flower. I’m guessing this is what he survives on.
Next stop was a vetiver distillery, with men sitting around in chairs in a circle of cut khus. When asked if they distilled sandalwood we were told no, but then gently herded to the back and shown that in fact, they were distilling sandalwood, under lock and key and strict secrecy. The men outside weren’t to know that anything more than khus was being distilled here. There are various reasons for this but the basic gist is that the distillation is illegal. I think perhaps they didn’t get the logs legally, but that is speculation on my part. The receivers were all behind a locked, unmarked door, and taped thoroughly to prevent leaking and evaporation. I was stunned at such a coup! I did not expect or even consider that I would see sandalwood being distilled! Right outside the still though, sat barrels of plasticizer. There could be no other use than to stretch the sandalwood, either selling it as sandalwood or attars. I don’t even have the contact information for these guys but I did get some pictures.
The next stop on our journey was a larger facility run by a man who clearly was relieved to send me packing to his brother in Mumbai. I want to see the Jasmine Sambac extraction down in Tamil Nadu, having seen it 10 years ago, and now would like to go back and buy our jasmine directly from them. Mr. Das showed us around, to the traditional extraction of Genda (marigold) attar and Hina (henna) attars, but into DOP, not sandalwood. Apparantly it’s possible to order your attars in pure sandalwood, dop/sandalwood mix, or pure dop. But from my conversations with these distillers and Rajnish, I don’t think there is much of a chance of getting pure sandalwood either alone or in attars, even if you pay for it. I was very fortunate to be accompanied by Rajnish as he’s a grower, not a businessman or a chemist, and there seemed to be a minimum of cant involved when he asked a question. The distiller would look a bit sheepish and then admit that the chance of getting pure sandalwood was virtually nil. I am really so grateful for this as I so often get the runaround. This facility was also doing khus, which is vetiver, and when it’s done in copper it’s a ruh, so it’s Ruh Khus. Again, I saw plenty of barrels of DOP and took photos of them. There is no other possible use than as an adulturant.
So there are quite a few distillers still in Kannauj, even if there is no sandalwood, or very little legal sandalwood available for them. But what can you expect? Most of these distillers are several generations. This is often the case in India. Where you might find us in the west adapting to changing markets and other external factors, in India it’s a lot slower for these forces to take effect. When your entire family has distilled, for generations, in a particular city, and you are known there, and all your family history is there, it’s going to be difficult and complicated to pull up your stakes and change professions. So we have plenty of distillers scrambling however they can to make ends meet.
The aromatherapy industry is so tiny you can barely call it an industry. Really we have to include ourselves in the perfume industry. But we’re not, because the important thing in all standard uses of essential oils is uniformity of quality and availability, and price. For us it’s different. At least for me it is. I am looking for a beautiful oil free from adulturants; and not rectified, folded, strengthened, added to in any way, taken from in any way, just 100% pure and natural, the way it grew in the plant. That is the minimum. To be a beautiful oil, it has to have more than beautiful energy, prana. Preferably it’s been grown in optimum conditions, which vary. Preferably it’s been distilled with love, knowledge and respect for its nature. Preferably it’s been stored in good conditions. Preferably the people who have harvested and distilled this oil have a good attitude, are compensated enough so that they don’t have to worry about feeding their families, and love what they do. Preferably the oils smells exquisite and sparkles with an effervescense that you just can’t improve on, no matter how talented your lab technicians. “Nature Identical” is an oxymoron. It’s an idiotic, arrogant concept, smug in its surety that only major constituents count, because of their bulk and percentage, and that the less prevalent ones don’t matter simply because there are less of them. Tucking some extenders in there might fool people who care only about an initial “smell” but ultimately such a practice will undermine what we love, and the oil will be less. Essential oils are exciting and lovely—they are wonderful to smell, to inhale and taste. They are the souls of the plant, carefully and magically brought over through the process of steam, it’s modern alchemy. A perfume oil is simply that: a perfume oil. It might smell pretty but it’s a pretty poor substitute. It’s the difference between going to the Sahara and watching a tv show about it.
Yesterday Rajnish came for me on a motorbike and we spent the day riding around, me sidesaddle, waving at the astonished crowds, I felt like the Queen of the Rose Parade. We ended the day with a couple of meetings, one with some Jain guys who said they used to distill roses into palmarosa! This guy is terribly interesting when he chooses to speak but it’s difficult to get him to say anything. The other meeting was with someone Rajnish had not yet met but wanted to for years. Sometimes everyone just takes a liking to each other and that was the case here with Mr. Singh. We discussed sandalwood at length and I asked in as many ways as I could what would I have to do to get real, unadulterated, Indian sandalwood oil? So this is what we came up with: He has bid or is bidding at the May log auction. If he gets the wood it will be trucked up to Kannauj where it will be distilled for me, for us at Enfleurage, and I will come and be a pest and sleep at the still (although he doesn’t believe I will do this as it’s 7-8 days distillation and May or June in Kannauj is hideously, horribly hot.) The total output will be a kilo or two and we are taking it all. It will be very expensive, I can’t even guess how much. But it will be there, Inshallah. And at the same time, in the same vicinity, the ruh bela will be distilled. This is jasmine sambac, which grows all over India, and even though most jasmine oil is absolute, ruh bela is water distilled, in small quantities, in copper. This is a ruh and it’s done basically the same way as vetiver, Ruh Khus. It would be great to see it but first I must settle this sandalwood thing. I will try not to get my hopes up, for so many promised things never materialize and this could be the same.
I have forgotten to write about another food experience—Lucknow is very justifiably famous for Biriyani. This is Mughlai cuisine and I am not familiar with it. In addition, I am a vegetarian, and Biriyani is served with meat, but once again Rajnish came through, as we zipped up to a small street specializing in Biriyani. We went in, sat down and he ordered me plain biriyani, a little side plate of curry sauce, and then, after, a delicate paneer dish in tomato sauce, and some bread, fine and thin, and another specialty of the street. All I can say is that this is the traditional Islamic Cuisine of the Nabobs of Antiquity. Ultra refined, exquisitely sophisticated, delicate and complex, this is the food of royalty. I cannot even imagine what was in that rice, besides rosewater! And Kewda (Pandanus odoratissimus, or Kadi) water, cloves, and…….? I ate my rice, swooning, and the curry sauce, which I applied sparingly, accompanied it perfectly. This is impossible to describe. The paneer dish and the bread would have easily been the best, most delicious things on the table in most normal circumstances, but I ate some of them, and had more rice. Anyone who wants to visit this miraculous temple to food should tell the rickshaw driver, Dastrkhoan, Near Tulsi Hall, and the UP Press Club. Telephone is 262-5297. English not spoken. But you can always point.
Tomorrow I catch another train, preferably a less vermin infested one, back to Delhi, to meet Tom and Jill when they fly in Sunday night. Rajnish has already left. I’ve had an interesting and fruitful time here in Lucknow, have eaten well, shopped, and blasted around on a motorbike, exactly what I needed.
After this I was hungry for another chaat visit. So down the street we went, to another chaat guy, and there are plenty of photos here. It’s the same story—aloo tikki (potatoes,) mutter (peas,) or dahib bara (yogurt riddled balls of chickpea, I think.) Then you’ve got sweet and sour tamarind sauce, hot mint/cilantro sauce, roasted ground cumin, fresh garam masala, shaved ginger, powdered chile, lemon, yogurt and crisp pani puris crumpled on top. The custom is, after you eat, and are full, you start with the pani puris, he pokes a hole in the shell, puts a bit of potato mixture in, and dips it in the pani puri water, and I have to figure out what’s in it. Then you pop the entire thing in your mouth and even though this is difficult, it’s mandatory and if you think it doesn’t matter and do half then you get scolded.