Sunday, February 28, 2010
Well, you are dreaming if you believe that.
Thing is, when you are in India, try to adapt. It’s fine if you’re veg, but if you try and learn what you’re eating you’ll be stressed, cause you’ll never guess. But you needn’t worry because Indians don’t eat things like insects, pigs, dogs etc. You have to make an effort to eat non-veg. It’s all vegetables, so just relax, shut up, and enjoy it. You won’t be disappointed, I guarantee it.
It helps if you can easily deal with spices too, like chilies. And your experience will be further enhanced if you get used to eating with your hands even though someone will always bring you some cutlery because you are foreign.
But if you can just eat with your right hand (rice and dahl included) and trust that there’s going to be nothing weird in your plate, then you will have the best culinary experience of your life. Just wash your hands before and after.
Most foreigners get sick from eating where other foreigners are eating (like eating in Times Square—why?) or not washing their hands, or eating something just plain stupid like partially unwrapped ice cream (which I did once, in a train station, with predictable results.) Stay where lots of locals eat and you can’t go wrong. Don’t worry.
I just went next door to my little hotel in Coimbatore, to the Ananda Bhavan, evidently a small (9 outlets from Coimbatore to Delhi) chain of sweets and snacks but with vegetarian meals served upstairs. This one is at 313, Bharathuyar Road, Gandhipuram, Coimbatore 641 004 and the telephone (if you speak Tamil) is 0422 252 1919.
The normal massive menu didn’t seem worth looking at since everyone in the packed place had a metal tray, usually called a Thali in front of them, with rice on a banana leaf and about 8 small dishes of vegetables, dahl, curd, sweets and some roasted red peppers to crumble on. What was it? “A meal.” Ok, then, one meal, please. Oh yeah. The propriater came over, nervous, but soon calmed down when he saw me eat with my hands, and even brought me extra chilies, every dish was better than the last with coconut in many of them, and that’s all I can say. It’s kind of a joke with me but it’s true when I say, I have no idea what I ate. I recognized rice. The sweet was pongol. The rest??? No clue. But go there if you’re in Coimbatore. It’s next to the CAG Pride Hotel, which is also quite nice.
The ratio of great meals to total meals eaten in India is high. Those dosas in Mysore! Specialties from everywhere. Highly regionalized, yet vegetarian is always the norm, especially in the south. And always fresh, unless you’re in some place either catering to foreigners or pretending to. There isn’t really a cuisine I’d call “Indian” unless you call that same same menu you see in every Indian restaurant in the world: palak paneer, aloo gobi, baigan bartha etc etc. Yawn. Has nothing to do with these delightful edibles here. It’s like 1960s America, when Chinese food was chop suey, chow mein and egg foo young.
If you have left a comment on my blog in the past, please do not feel slighted if I don’t reply. Some people have asked questions or expected a reply and I have to tell you that blogger doesn’t give your email address—it’s says firstname.lastname@example.org So I can’t reply to you. Usually I can’t even leave a comment on my own blog either. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t bother me, I’m used to it. Sometimes I try it and it works but not enough to where I try it often. I know that it’s technically possible and I don’t utilize the full smorasgboard of google, but there are so many hours available.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
245 kilos of frangipani flowers. Am I in the right business or what?
Soon enough I was hopping and dorking and snapping dozens and dozens of pictures of the same thing!
These pretty little sweet ones come from the Husur Forest just over the border in Karnataka! Yes, they are WILD frangipanis. I had to sit down for that one. And not only that, but last year, once, during the picking, which is late at night, wild elephants came and the pickers had to flee up trees where they sat all night, waiting for the elephants to leave. I mean, come on! Can you even make this stuff up? I am ready right now to go back to that Husur Forest, that I drove through yesterday, and go looking for a clearing with a lake for the elephants, full of wild frangipanis……
How much concrete and absolute will 245 kilos of frangipani flowers make? About a half kilo of concrete and then 200 grams of absolute. As you might have been able to tell from the photo, frangipani flowers are very fragile. When I pick a few at the Crown Plaza, in Salalah, and carefully drop them into a scarf, and gently put them down on the seat, and drive maybe 2 minutes home…..at least one will have already bruised. These ones have come overnight by truck from the forest 280 km away, but this is the way it is, and it’s the norm for frangipani.
Then he goes into the hexane extractors for 3 hexane washes of 2 hours each and then a steam rinse. If you are one of those people who doesn’t like absolutes, then really I’m sorry, but you are cutting off your nose to spite your face1 These flowers don’t talk to water! They’re not interested! Is it for us to say?
Frangipani absolute resembles nothing so much as raw honey that has sat for a while in your cupboard. It’s golden and somewhat texturally knobbly and viscous even, but of course it smells like heavens honey! I don’t know whether I want to spread it on toast or my pillow! Or just dance through a forest of this blossoming bounty wearing only butterflies and frangipanis in my hair!
Ok, I know, I’m a little out of control. But you think Enfleurage smells good? Well, our flower extractor has us beat. This is Mr. L, who does all the major jasmines, better than anyone, and tuberose, champaka, lotus, mimosa (be still my heart,) frangipani and rose: absolutes, concretes, and waxes, obviously. If you do absolutes, you have to have the others, n’est pas?
He is now branching out a bit and has started a couple of essential oils as well: the usual grasses, curry leaf, tulsi (Holy Basil,) and the most swooningist, sublime, nectarine fleshed Davana I have tried. It’s not quite ready so I have only a sample to carry around like a pup with a squeak toy, but rest assured, I will broadcast his arrival when he does come! I expect him one day, soft sweet plums, guavas, nectarines and sweet hay, like cherry cordial and smooth silken peach.
How many kilos of flowers make a kilo of concrete? It takes
2200 kilos of tuberose flowers
170 of mimosa
400 of jasmine grandiflorum
750 of sambac
1200 of roses
and lotus is 1500! But the flowers are so rare it’s really just for interests sake.
And this brings me a sad little aside. I was coming to see frangipani, yes, and champaka, tuberose, lotus and mimosa. But it looks like frangipani is the whole pie. Why? Because there are not other flowers—maybe, perhaps 8-10 kilos of champaka blossoms will come tonight, but not a half ton. The culprit is Climate Change, a topic that for some reason is still controversial in the US, like there’s not enough proof. (The US is the only country that doesn’t get it I think?) Well, whatever, here in Tamil Nadu you can see it, in the last year in particular, both the climate and the monsoon have gone too whack to ignore. There is not enough rain at the proper time, the monsoon has shifted, it varies, and so does the temperature. The flowers are in chaos. They are slow to flower if they do at all, and then it rains when it shouldn’t, and spoils the crop. We should have tuberose, but with no rain, there are no flowers. And also with no rain, no ponds, so no lotus. Last year the mimosa bounty was a ton. This year it’s 200 kg only. Mr L has been in this business for 25 years, and even taking into account the usual vagaries of climate, this is new. He hopes it will improve next year, go back to normal, or it will be “a problem.”
Well, I slammed a few seriously sexy oils in about 10 days: agarwood, sandalwood, jasmines and champaka, frangipani and mimosa, tuberose and davana. Now I will go have a poke around some backroads, and see what happens. You never know.
Tuesday, February 09, 2010
We content ourselves, these days, with imitations, both pallid and richly imitative, but in the end, they are only pictures that remind us of our standard bearer, the glory against which all others are measured: Indian Mysore Sandalwood, grown on the Deccan Plateau, in the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Depending on our willingness to compromise, or perhaps on the lack, in our souls, of the song of sandalwood, we take what we can get with the others: from a fine Indonesian, who is almost there, to that sad Australian, who must be called “Australian Sandalwood” because calling him “sandalwood” alone would be a cause for mockery.
I almost skipped Mysore, as I know there is no distillation going on. What would be the point of sadly standing outside those locked gates, anxiously peering inside to no avail? But just before I left New York I lucked into just over 300 grams of Mysore Oil, brought in by someone who had started a company years ago and whose plans had changed and now wanted a little cash. I only got to stay with this little treasure for a day or two before I flew off. And now it is gone. But just the merest sniff got me to thinking…….Shouldn’t I just go see Mysore? Who knows what might happen?
So here I am in Mysore. Immediately upon arrival I called the sandalwood distillery. He sounded bored. Yes, they were open and would I just come immediately? Well I nearly raced out of my own clothes getting out of that room and down to the rickshaws. Had the luck of hiring a fabulous rickshaw wallah whose information I will give at the end of this post.
Off we zoomed to a side lane near the engineering College. The Mysore Workshop Area. Indians love categorizing things and then filing them. Down an overgrown lane we sped and there, after the ruins what was once probably once the prestigious Sandalwood Guest House stood the distillery itself.
No place in the world could such a thing exist but India. Built in 1910 in a huge, ornamental, colonial, industrial style, which must have been truly magnificent, production started in 1917. I could not contain my imagination. How glorious it must have been!
I put that in the past tense because of two things: there is hardly any sandalwood and very little if any maintenance has been done on the factory.
No Photos. Why? No real reason, just that it’s a government building—I was allowed to take them from outside the gate. But never one to meekly obey anything when I don’t have to, I snuck a couple. A guard followed around me and my unofficial guide until he became either bored or alarmed. Because I truly geeked. I wigged. I cried. I dorked.
Everything in this place appears to be real and original, except that they “got rid of” the copper stills years ago and switched to Stainless Steel because the copper discoloured the oil. The stills now, the big ones that are used, hold a ton of sandalwood dust. That’s a ton, ton. Not just “a ton of “ meaning “a lot.”
Cobwebs covered the doors of each one, attacking my face as I peered in, much to the dismay of whomever was watching me at the moment. Piles and mounds of spent biomass (dust) lay in front of the stills. I was told the last distillation was last week but it seems longer than that going by the dust and cobwebs. The next distillation is expected to be in…….April. The poor G.M, whom I followed and pestered without mercy, said I could come for it, yes, and stay, yes, and sleep there yes, but he probably just said that to make me even happier and get me off his back.
A huge receiving room holds monstrous huge roots and “jibb,” the area right above the root. This is for display, along with a flow chart, half a century old, and peeling, and some other helpful charts, stacks and stacks of old burlap bags, impregnated with the divine essence. Huge wood chipping machines that looked like something you’d find on a Soviet Collective stood in their green glory massive with gears, cogs, pegs, and trap doors. And a machine that further renders the chips into dust in another corner. Great vats and barrels stood about, and in the corner, a small pile of logs, named and labeled with the lucky owner. The trees were small, and someone said they were about 12 years old. 25 is apparently the beginning of sandalwood. Yet they were cut and laying on the floor, behind the chipper and I went and petted them.
On the floor were two men cutting and cleaning a small amount of wood, no more than a couple of kilos. The shavings were gathered by my guide and me and crushed and played with and I tried to eat mine, which amused or alarmed them again.
The ceilings must be 40 feet high and remarkably intricate crenellations decorate the arched windows. The top of the ceiling, the peak, is open, presumably to let in the breeze and cool the place as much as possible. It must have smelled unbelievable. So that’s why royalty lived in Mysore!!
We went from room to room, and even though I tried very hard to remember everything, since I couldn’t take pictures, I have a terrible memory for facts but I can tell you it smelled like heaven, exactly how you’d hope and imagine India’s Sandalwood factory to smell after nearly 100 years of sandalwood. We wandered past the retorts, into the room where the actual oil is kept. Men, 2 and 3 to a room, were tiny dots in the massiveness. But they all seemed grateful for something to do, for someone who was really interested and knew a little bit, to show things to, and most of them looked as though they hadn’t left the place since 1976. No computers here! No Air Conditioning! Old desks and ledgers rule the sandalwood world. There is absolutely nothing to indicate that anything has moved since probably 1950. I’d say 1917 but I know they got rid of the copper stills…..
This is charming, utterly. Except that as I looked at the ironwork detail going up the stairs to the catwalk above and couldn’t help but notice the dirt, the cobwebs, the missing tiles, and rotting wood, the floor where the receivers are covered with pigeon poop, the overgrown yards, the empty pools, the sandalwood trees (planted in abundance on the grounds) limp with thirst and hungry for food, which they need to take from their (non-existent) neighbors, and see something better, something different. I wouldn’t even want to modernize it since it obviously still works fine. Just clean it! Repair it! Fix the rotting boards, pull the weeds, feed and water those trees!
The staff were kind and very informative. They allowed me into the room where the main 2 desks and the actual oil was. It’s labeled “redistillation” and this does go on although by this time I was having trouble keeping it together and couldn’t understand anything so one man opened a huge steel drum that could have held probably a ton of oil—it had 11 kg inside, and he put some on my wrist. It bloomed deliciously. Then he put the redistilled on the other wrist telling me it was mostly terpenes and less santalol. I tried to be kind to it. But we all knew.
How I wish I could have taken more pictures of this magnificent place. And the potential is astonishing! But it belongs to the Indian government! I asked if there was any way that it might possibly be privatized (no.) It’s probably a good thing because anyone who got their hands on it would probably destroy it, not to mention the charm, for sure.
I can’t even remember what the capacity of this distillery is. The big stills I have (blurry) photos of here hold a ton each. There are 8—4 having been ripped out and now being used for some sort of demonstration purposes somewhere. It could accommodate tons daily. And now it’s quiet, with distillations next occurring in April.
So there is a little wood still being distilled. Now for the hard part.
Sorry to have to say this. The oil is obviously collected, as is the spent dust (and made into incense sticks on site) but the hydrosol goes into the gutter. I am not generally a hydrosol fan but in this case I would make an exception. But they don’t want to sell it. It’s Alkali….The ph is not what they’d like.
So what is the sandalwood being used for? There is a little bit being sold pure. For a hell of a lot—I was shocked. But I still bought what I could. The rest? It goes into soap. Talcum powder. Hair Pomade. And in each and every product, every single one, the sandalwood is covered with perfume. There is not a single product from Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited, made with real sandalwood, which smells like sandalwood. We went over them one by one. The incense sticks too. All have perfume, although the good manager helpfully told me they used essential oil perfume. He had that resigned look. God only know where those decisions are made, somewhere in the deep bowels of Indian officialdom. Remember these are the same guys that told everyone to shut down the agarwood industry until they pass their resolutions (which is in its 10th year of discussion.) And they add “rose oil” to the only soap in the world made from real sandalwood. I had heard this before but needed it proved.
Now then, I asked a bunch of questions about origin, specifically asking about African oil, since I’m so obsessed with the Kerala/Tanzania thing. Well, it seems that they experimented a couple of years ago, distilling Tanzanian and even Australian wood! But it was so disappointing that they stopped. No point. At least someone saw that.
I am going to check out the Tamil Nadu forestry department if possible, and see what they have to say about sandalwood. About Kerala…maybe?
What a fabulous visit it was, even as a trip through living ruins. It’s just magnificent.
Oh yes, it's not legal to export sandalwood, except in 5 ml bottles. Anything bigger will be seized.
The rickshaw wallah who took me about in his motorized three wheeler is Santos. His mobile number is 9844 072 521. Vehicle number KAB775. He speaks a little English and, (very important to me,) gets what I mean when I say I want to eat. He didn’t take me to a tourist place, which is what almost everyone does. He took me to a place called Gopika Restaurant on Sri Harsha Road near the Govardan Hotel. Sitting down can be a struggle and ordering a fight, you won’t sit alone and pay the “No Service” signs on the tables no mind. I had the best dosa of my life. It was so crispy and fine; I think he put a little cabbage in the mix, whatever. If you’re in Mysore you’d be a fool to miss this place.
Monday, February 08, 2010
We fled after the agarwood market, back to Mr Birren’s distillery, picked up Pinky and Maryam, and shot off into the night for Shyamgaon, a little slice of heaven in the forest. Shyamgaon is a Buddhist village, deep in Hindu/Muslim Assam. It’s way up, or out, right on the Nagaland border. And if the world made sense it’s what you would find when you looked in the dictionary under “adorable.” And we got there at night! The roads are tiny, and every house has a little bamboo picket fence around it. Bamboo, agarwood, eucalyptus…..every variety of tree welcomes you from the shadows. Even though they are Buddhist, their caste is Shyam. I don’t get it, but that’s India for you. I had the utter pleasure of meeting these people, I think they are all related. I didn’t get too far, as Quavi and Pinky had lots to talk about with them and of course they were feeding us, another meal I can’t describe. I feel like the boy who cried wolf. Always I say this meal or that one was indescribable, but this time it’s actually true. The only things I can say is that the rice came in a ball and I have never had that kind of rice before. There were fruits masquerading as vegetables. Things that looked like you should eat, you drank instead. Somehow, a boiled green was addictively salty and pungent—I couldn’t stop eating it. There was a strong sense of relief while eating it, like Ok, thank God, this has finally happened. No idea what it was. None. It was completely plain, no sauce, no spice. Just boiled.
Anyway, I hit it off immensely with Hasna, who turned out to be the head of the co-op. I had gone outside to wash my hands before eating when I couldn’t help but notice a huge room full of giant looms. They would have probably astonished someone who knew what they were looking at even more than they astonished me but they are huge. And intricate, and I just stopped and stood there with my mouth open. I think there were 6 of these. Well, we were in the main Women’s Assam Silk Weaving Coop. They specialize in golden thread. It’s completely out of control. Wonderful. I snapped a few inadequate pictures.
Our evening came to an end too soon, and we were off to Jorhat, where the Quavis took me to a hotel and raced off to see Pinky’s family, who live there.
The next morning I was in for a terrifying surprise, as Pinky’s family had a huge welcoming breakfast for me. Believe me I had no idea and was so shocked and at sea surrounded by all the friendly and welcoming yet fierce Indian women asking why I wasn’t married that my left eye exploded. Just a broken blood vessel but I look like a monster (still) and Quavi wondered if I needed to go to the hospital. But again, events proceeded, and I ended up sitting in the yard in the sunshine with some of these ladies and eventually things calmed down. They were all waiting to greet me in their very best saris and believe me that is something to see. All the more so when you realize that this is the rest of the women’s weaving cooperative, which weaves silk saris in Assamese traditional style, using gold thread. They are magnificent.
Back we went to Mr Birrin’s so I could pick up my oil—and we stopped off to see another distiller as well who showed us an oudh with a nasty burnt note that lasted for about 5 minutes and then began to morph into the most beautiful classical Indian oudh, rich and delightful, a complete shock for us. There is so much to see in Assam, and Upper Assam in particular is just heaven. If I didn’t live in Oman I would go stick to Shyamgaon immediately.
It was a shock to sit out there, around the fire that previous night, (with a hard bitten pup allowed and proud to share the fire with us,) to think that actually, we were closer to Bangkok than Delhi. It’s a whole part of the world I’ve never given much thought to, as it’s not the “regular” part of India. But India’s Northeast, Burma, Thailand, China even, Bangladesh…..this is a pretty untouched (by the modern world,) spot. I didn’t see another westerner at all. Not one. And no chain stores, obviously. Everything on a small scale, those tiny roads winding through the bamboo forest, full of woven bamboo and frond homes on stilts, clear eyed cows laying in safety and comfort on the ground under the houses, chewing their cuds, gentle eyed in the darkness. I didn’t want to leave that town!
But leave we had to. Thankfully it was Sunday and we had minimal traffic all the way back to Guwahati. I caught a plane the next day and here I am in Bangalore, another world from the quiet of Assam.
After a delightful breakfast of dahl and bread, it was off to the local TV Station, where I was a guest on Nagaon Today. Sompriti and I discussed agarwood and why Assam is known for it as Tajul and Quavi watched from the screens outside. It seemed like it went ok, and the show was done in English and Assamese. (I did the English part.)
After this I was off with Quavi, his wife Pinky and his 3 year old daughter Maryam for the wilds of Assam. And what a delightful state it is!
First we drove to Ajmal’s farm and it was quite an interesting visit. Ajmal, for anyone who is unfamiliar with it, means “Prettier” in Arabic and they are a very big company based in Assam and selling agarwood all over the Middle East. Even Salalah has 3 Ajmal branches. Ajmal has been growing agarwood trees all over Assam for 20 years and even with the ridiculous restrictions imposed by the Assam Wood Based Industries Rules 2000 and CITES (which you can read about in detail on the previous post “Agarwood in Assam,”) it seems to me that they run the show.
Ajmal has a big complex in Hojai, which is one of my super-geeky holy grails, one of my stops on the must-go list. But it’s not sarcastic. I am thrilled to have actually made it to Hojai, a fairly unremarkable town to an untrained eye, until one gets to the Flower Valley Agro Tech in Gopalnagar, where Ajmal’s nerve center buzzes with odd activity. There are 5 brothers and I met 2 of them, and the nephew, who was loquacious and kept up a pretty good rap. But there were no women around and I mean no women at all. Not a woman in the place. Not one. Men crawled all over this office-housing-etc complex, construction workers, maintenance men, servants, gardeners, security men, the owners themselves. But Quavi thinks I might have been the first woman some of them have ever talked to after their mothers and sisters. It must be possible.
At first we ate and why is it men can always talk about fish? The Nephew, whose name escapes me at the moment regaled me with stories of fine fish eaten, and the lengths some of them have gone to in order to eat a particular fish, flying all the way to Bombay in one case, and spending a small fortune in transportation just to eat a 500 RS fish. Soon they were forcing more fish on me and I have admit it was very good fish indeed, river fish from the Brahmaputra.
Despite its size, and the presence of a rose garden, Ajmal does not distill roses. They only distill agarwood but had a sample of Assamese sandalwood and will start to cut their trees in 5 years or so. They have patience. They have started growing sandalwood along with agarwood and I have some pictures of the two growing together. Sandalwood being a parasitic tree, he can’t live unless he has a host to mooch off of.
We walked to the market-size agarwood receiving area where wood is cleaned and sorted and found ourselves in the open area between these receiving areas and the agarwood storage. So many locks on the door to the agarwood storage it looked like a New York apartment circa 1984. Three boxes of cleaned and good looking agarwood was pulled out, all of it supposedly from natural occurring infection.
The scene was surreal—a dozen and a half men milling about, our armed guards, the two huge Ajmal guys in white, the Nephew, whispering prices and promises in my ear, the heavily locked storage rooms and the hum of electric energy you get when lots of expensive agarwood comes into the room.
They actually buy agarwood oil from all over the area, from the small distillers, and this keeps a lot of people alive and in business. If it wasn’t for Ajmal, a large part of Assam’s economy would probably collapse.
We spent a couple of hours at Ajmal, way beyond our original plan of course, and finally roared off into the night for a long and exhaustive trip to Kanziranga State Park.
Next morning we were off for a jeep ride through the park, looking for wild rhinos and elephants. We spent several hours bucketing about in the back of the truck and saw plenty of elephants and deer and even a few rhinos. The Indian one horned rhino is critically endangered (far more deserving of CITES protection than agarwood) and it was wonderful to see this nearly blind and sweet vegetarian armoured creature nibbling away in the brush across the river but I couldn’t help but be grateful that I started traveling when I did, way back I the 80s. I remember I rode an elephant through the Terai brush in Nepal early one morning in 1985, following one of those big rhinos for hours, getting about 20 feet away from him.
After this it was off to Upper Assam and the land of agarwood distilleries. We wound up in the late afternoon at the distillery of a delightful Hindu man (most agarwood people are Muslim) and served a delicious lunch that perfectly matched the delicious oudh oil. I learnt quite a bit about the actual distilling that I didn’t know. The chips (not dust here) is distilled for maybe 4 days, then removed. Then the wood is distilled another 7 days maybe. Then removed again. Then it’s distilled another 10 days or so, depending, constantly removed and checked to make sure it hasn’t reached the point where it hardens. Once that happens you have boyah and the oudh plummets in value. You can sell boyah as well, but not for nearly as much. Boyah is the stuff that gets hard. It’s from white wood, not infected or with very little infection. Most of what you see in the US is boyah. Even though it is technically agarwood oil, distilled from an agarwood tree, it’s not oudh.
So this was a fine opportunity to try each fraction (for want of a better word) of the oudh. I have never had that opportunity before. I must interject that nowhere in Assam did I see the things that usually spell suspicion of adulteration to me. In each and every family distillery I saw exactly what I would have expected to see. It’s a nice surprise to have no ugly surprises.
Realizing the day was almost over Quavi propelled me into the car and we shot off toward the agarwood market in the deepening twilight. After endless turns and through enchanting but completely disorienting landscape we came upon a space by the side of the road littered with bikes laden with entire small agarwood trees. Well, I don’t usually get intimidated but I sure as hell did here. These guys were quite obviously not pleased to see me, and, I later learned, nor Quavi. No one knows whether to love him or hate him I guess. And me? I think they thought I was a CITES official or a journalist. I foolishly had my camera with me. Later Quavi laughed at me and said he didn’t know why I felt intimidated but really it was something. These guys, not one of them smiling, pressed in really really close and the vibe made me realize just how far away I was from anything or anyone who might have cared if I got lynched.
But aside from that, and figuring that I was already in the soup anyway, I managed to squeeze off a few blurry photos of the infections. Some were obviously naturally occurring and some were cajoled out at knifepoint! I didn’t get any answers to prices as I had taken it about as far as I could and I figured I should go get back in the car. I could see Quavi about 50 feet away surrounded by his own gang of angry farmers. And he didn’t look so comfortable either, despite what he said later.
Anyway, we lived.
Actually, according to Syed Abdul Quavi, the whole attempt to control or ban the trade in this supposedly endangered species has been somewhat of a disaster.
Before I go on I should need to clarify a few things, if I can. Agarwood has the perception of being overharvested and endangered and I have argued against its inclusion on ICUN redlist or CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appx 2 based on what I have learned in Laos. The crux of that argument is that in Laos, it is the forests themselves which are endangered, not the agarwood trees, and in fact agarwood, along with rubber and teak make up the majority of trees planted on cleared forest land so they do not now appear to be disappearing from the wild as it is the wild itself that disappears, not the agarwood trees. The addition of agarwood to the international bureaucracy has only served to legalize trade for (usually western) growers who have jumped through the necessary hoops and done the correct paperwork to be awarded with the necessary “eco-friendly” stamp of approval. It goes without saying that the majority of these people are new to agarwood cultivation, recently lured by the promise of big and easy money. So, as usual, the people who have traditionally dealt in agarwood are marginalized, and forced to deal either with intermediaries who can supply the certifications deemed necessary by people who have no connection at all to agarwood.
The last time I was in Laos, last summer, I found that CITES certificates were fairly easy to obtain from a group of Australians now heavily invested in their agarwood project, but when I actually bought my wood and oil, from my usual supplier, we had to scramble to find one, and the one I got was for another company in another country. In other words, it was a fake one.
Here in India, according to Syed Abdul Quavi, the situation in Assam is equally bizarre and the CITES implementations that have been imposed do not reflect a logic for the situation on the ground. Perhaps it is that CITES, as most organizations, comes up with plans and solutions based on their hierarchical structure and goals, taking perhaps governmental reluctance into account but not other factors, like the sheer grinding bureaucracy of the governments, in particular the Indian government. If I may put it another way, the Government of India has made mincemeat out of much more formidable organizations than CITES. We had to actually call the person at TRAFFIC responsible for the whole matter, at his home, in another country, to find out what the regulations are for taking a few tolas of oil out. (We’re not allowed to.)
To quote Quavi again, “the actual procedure to export agarwood is a punishment for growing an endangered species in a private plantation. “
In 1995 Agarwood was placed in CITES appendix 2 severely restricting the movement and sale of raw material and products made from it.
In 2000 local Indian legislation (The Assam Wood Based Industries Rules 2000) compelled the agarwood industry, then, as now, a cottage industry, to shift all agarwood distillation away from farms and home distilleries to industrial areas in certain cities; so the industry does not technically exist anymore.
Why? Agarwood is expensive. If you must shift your operation to a place far away from your home, you will have to employ at least three people just to do what the family does normally; to watch the agarwood. Security and price become an immediate and insurmountable problem. It’s not feasible and perhaps one of those things that looks very good on paper, but doesn’t work practically, like communism. It was a typically heavy handed and ill-considered dictum that produced no results at all except to render the agarwood industry invisible, the opposite effect of what was intended.
Since there are no industrial Agarwood farms, there is, following the same logic, no agarwood. So the small growers, and particularly the people who have a few trees in their yards, as is common in Assam, don’t technically exist because they are not in designated industrial agarwood places. Therefore, since they cannot be registered growers, they cannot produce agarwood, so all agarwood produced is thereby assumed to be from the wild. And Cites does not issue permits for this “wild wood.”
Indian CITES says they “are working on it.”
For 10 years now. By way of support they offer this: ”Until the rules are framed by the government you are requested to close down your industry.”
The presence of a real indigenous agarwood industry does not legally exist. But this photo to the right is an agarwood and a sandalwood tree growing together.
Then how is there legal agarwood and oil exported from India? There are a few industrial distilleries located in export free zones (Mohammed Doud & Bros near Chennai for example) and a few people dealing in oil from places like Kannauj or Kanpur (one the India’s most polluted cites.) Since 1995, if you (legally) import SE Asian wood to India, you can also re-export it. So “Indian” agarwood, if it is legal, is always going to actually be SE Asian agarwood, processed in India. It’s like Sandalwood “from Kerala” that so many people think is really from Kerala. It’s processed in Kerala, but actually from Africa.
Sayed Abdul Quavi continues: “If cites is so good at banning trade in a particular area which can easily be cultivated and replenished in nature, then they should also be proactive in seeing that the passage of cultivated agarwood to the international market is made easy from the range states, for example India, from which not a kilo of agarwood has been exported since 1995 on CITES papers, since it is only a process of marking the paper with an A (artificially propagated) or W (Wild.)
What I found in Upper Assam was a plentitude of agarwood growing. You could say most homes had a few trees in the front yard. They are good insurance for a daughters wedding or a son going away to school. And they will sell, to someone who will render them into chips and distill the rest. I didn’t see any wild forest at all. I know it’s there, but we drove up from Guwahati, all the way to Jorhat, near the Nagaland border and after about midway, once we reached the “upper” part of the State, agarwood was everywhere I looked.
There were also quite a few small distillers, with 3-5 stills processing local (farmed) but illegal-by-default-technicality wood. And with the exception of what I saw in Nagaon, the distilleries I saw used rice paddy husks and already distilled agarwood chips as fuel for the stills, not firewood.
It seems like a pretty clean little industry to me, even when we get to the next part, which is how are these distillers going to sell their oil and to whom? This is where Ajmal comes in.
Whatever you may think of Ajmal, a large perfume/agarwood company based in Hojai, whose name means “Prettier” in Arabic, they clearly have a large presence in the agarwood world. Anyone familiar with the Arabic lands will know them immediately. We have three branches in Salalah! It’s a family business, of course, with its own local language, Sylleti.
I had the pleasure of popping in on them, for lunch, courtesy of Quavi, a close family friend.
While I didn’t get to see any distillation actually going on, I now understand that it’s mainly because whether or not they distill their own oil, they definitely buy it from people throughout the countryside. And then they deal with how to get it out into the world. Ajmal is probably well equipped for this, I have no idea how exactly they do it, but it’s a good thing they do because selling your oil to Ajmal gives you an income.
Assam has plenty of natural resources; it has gold. It has oil. It has agarwood. But this is not obvious when you are traveling through. Most people you see are walking. There are a few bicycles. The cars are all Marutis and smaller. I didn’t see a single Landcruiser, Mercedes or Lexus. Most homes are bamboo and thatch with possibly some brightly painted concrete blocks. No one had flashy cell phones, or expensive sunglasses. These are the normal indicators of money. The homes in general were delightful in appearance, with cleanly swept yards, and fruit (and agarwood) trees. But they were really simple. The towns were simple too. I did not see a lot of jewelry shops, of electronics stores, car dealerships, even petrol stations. There were not a lot of banks. The plowing is done with animals. Water was often brought via hand cranked pumps. Only some villages are electrified. All in all, not a place where there is a huge underground economy. It’s a sustenance economy, dependent on the weather and the crops. In this picture you see agarwood and sandalwood growing side by side. Sandalwood is a parasite and he needs someone to grow with, to feed him like the litle prince he is.
If some of these people cut down their own trees, sell them, cut them up and distill part of them, for a very costly oil that the Arabs love, then what is the problem? It’s necessary for the Western conservationists to come in and run things? But thanks to the helpfulness of the Indian government and organizations like CITES, we can be assured that this small world of agarwood will stay exactly as it is, with oil being smuggled out in small proportions and no more no less. In fact, it may be better this way, as, if CITES permits were actually issued for Indian oil, the government would probably take such a big bite of tax that people would smuggle it anyway.
So this is Upper Assam. All the wood I saw was supposedly farmed, domestically grown, wood. Sometimes it was a natural infection (very good) and sometimes it was infected (ok but inferior.) Yet Mr. Bakshi down in Nagaon said the wood I bought from him was wild from Nagaland. It’s hard to imagine that wood making the trip down through Upper Assam to where he is. Why would it? There is plenty of wood available between the two places. He had a lot of trees under cultivation. He said 30,000. And they were infecting themselves. I saw this. No need to muck about with an inoculation kit. Unlike Ajmals trees near Hojai, which don’t infect themselves at all, the trees both near Nagaon and in Upper Assam will do their own work.
Why would he tell me the wood was wild if it was farmed unless it was due to the perceived preference for wild wood? I don’t know and I don’t have an answer. But all the other wood I saw was supposedly farmed and I don’t know how you can tell for sure. When I saw logs for sale they sure looked like trees out of someone’s yard. They were small, some of them little more than saplings. All of them were infected with some resin. Some had been wounded and others carried the mark of an insect only. These trees were all only a few years old so it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that they were planted, grew and harvested.
I think what you look for in the case of Upper Assam trees, if you are not trying to infect them, are the insect bore marks. They are easy to spot, and so is the pile of dust at the bottom of the tree after they’ve been drilling through it.
So the whole thing about farm grown trees now has a common sense and logic that is unquestionable to me. But when people buy oil that is “certified” or something similar as Indian oil, they should be wary. It can’t exist, since there is no agarwood in India, remember?
I was wrong about something that I wrote about long ago. I thought that once the infections were done, and good wood extracted, and distilled, then the price of oudh oil would go down due to the vast amount of oil suddenly on the market. But this doesn’t look like it’s happening. It looks like good Oudh will always command a high price, since it will always be rare and with good oudh becoming rarer, the price going higher, now we can witness the birth of Boyah.
Boyah is fairly new to Agarwood, and it looks as though it’s here to stay. Boyah smells like agarwood (to Western noses,) and it’s distilled from agarwood trees, but it’s distilled from white wood. That’s uninfected wood. Or very minimally infected wood. Boyah is the one that gets hard at room temperature. Most of the agarwood oil you find in the US these days is hard like this. That’s because it’s Boyah. Boyah has a lot of uses: as an addictant in paan, as an agarwood adulterant, etc. Its uses seem to multiply quickly. Years ago there was no Boyah. There was no need as there was plenty of good agarwood. But this Boyah is a good backup. No matter what happens with your infection, you will always have Boyah.
So once again I find myself arguing against CITES and all this control. Although I do have the highest respect for what they, and TRAFFIC do in most cases, particularly when it pertains to animals, agarwood has been a fiasco. As, apparently, have orchids. For more information on that you can read Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever.
Friday, February 05, 2010
Things tend to move fast. And here I am feeling a bit like I’ve been chewed and spit out, but at least I avoided the canines, the grinders and the molars, so a good shake ought to be enough to set things right. Right.
I was pretty lame when I bought the ticket to India. The only thing I looked at was the length of time Oman to India. Completely spaced on the two Indian connections I had to make in Mumbai and Delhi. All I can say is don’t do it. Jet is a good airline but Jet Lite copies the American carriers—it’s best avoided, but it is cheap at least. Back to back flights on it, though, are rough. And the actual Airports are still under the control of the government. They must be. A private company could never get away with it. I won’t say more but if you are thinking to save a few dollars by not taking the direct flight……spend them instead. All your primal instincts will come into the fore if you attempt the “free shuttle bus” at Mumbai. On the other hand, if you are looking to prove yourself, to test your limits, then it’s just the ticket.
So here I am in Assam, a place I always wanted to visit, and it’s just beautiful and green as I imagined even though it will be greener in and after the monsoon. Assam is famous for tea and rhinos, and I am still thinking about going to see these pretty, yet easily irritated beasts. The tea I saw and tea plantations dot the hillsides, running a rich green carpet luxuriously over undulating countryside. Assam feels wild as well, and there doesn’t seem to be much commercialization. As usual in rural India, the people seem like they work very hard; plowing is done with buffalos, and there are not many cars. Everyone is on foot or maybe bicycle. The women are as pretty, graceful and elegant as always, in bright delicious colors, dupattas flowing. Wild elephants still visit the agarwood plantations at night, but Tajul says they do no damage.
Tajul has an agarwood farm near Nagaon, with about 30,000 trees scattered over a couple of forest plots. The oldest ones are over 12 years old. One of the most interesting and satisfying things is that according to him, the infection will usually occur naturally. It’s a question of time. That means that all those people who jumped on the bandwagon with big investments in Thailand, Vietnam, China, Laos, etc, the ones who are all freaking out because they have lost money and just want their investment back and to get the hell out asap……..they are victims of their own impatience, nothing more. If the infection occurs naturally with 99% of the trees, which is what I’m hearing today, then the ones who are trying to manipulate it have started their whole cycle with a desire to go push the natural process, to artificially accelerate, inseminate, to go faster, to improve on nature, and all under the guise of “sustainability” even if it was not very well thought out sustainability. And it’s been a disaster for almost everyone. Most people then will not benefit from growing agarwood, particularly modern people in a hurry. Americans? Australians? Thais? Nah. You need patience! Nothing more difficult and nothing more fitting or funnier.
I may be proven wrong in the next few days as I continue my journey around Assam, but that’s ok. One thing about agarwood, once you know something, you can be sure the information will change completely and then you’ll know nothing again! Sometimes the answers are hard to see because of their obviousness. Most of the time we look in books, or worse, online, and think someone else has the answers. I feel quite vindicated actually, since I was so repulsed at the torturous tree treatments I encountered at the Bangkok conference in 2007.
But despite all this, I expect that even the most stalwart and patient individual will still jump on a short cut if they can. And the trees do make some money, especially here in Assam where people have planted a couple in their yards, not 15,000. So maybe one day the forced infections will succeed.
Whether the agarwood is used for oil or chips is a decision made differently here than in Laos. There, the basic rule is: if it’s over 2000 bhat a kilo, don’t cook it. Here, the “partly processed” wood—that means cut up into manageable pieces, are examined closely and any signs of infection are cut out. It’s a lot of labor. Then the darker pieces, the ones that look even a little bit interesting, are taken for wood chips, and the rest is distilled. So maybe 40% chips, 60% distilled. And I found I was wrong about Boyah.
Boyah is the distilled white wood. I thought it had to come from cultivated trees but no. Boyah is always going to harden at room temperature. I did know that. But I thought it was related to the age of the tree. I think there is just some point of no return with minute parts of oil/resin in the wood and below that it’s boyah time. Boyah can smell great. We have one at Enfleurage and it’s a particularly nice one. But it’s not oudh, even if it technically is. According to Tajul, one of the main uses of Biyah is for Paan, and its job is to make the paan more addictive. So I guess you’d call it an addicitvent?
Sometimes white wood is mixed with infected wood and that is called Kundaboyah. That’s going to be agarwood oil (oudh) that hardens. Confused? Me too but I’m comfortable with it.
The oil he is distilling now is wild wood from Nagaland. I have to say that although I know plenty of people will contest this, I have not seen oil from cultivated wood. A little boyah, yes, perhaps, but not oudh. So here we are again with the wild wood, and I’m glad for it. There are even a couple of tolas on their way to Enfleurage. It’s smells like the moon, glorious shining luxury. Actually, thisway this oil smells reminds me of what I had filed away in my brain under “Cambodian.”
Even though I still don’t think this tree is an endangered species, I have to admit that a lot of firewood goes into the maw. The agarwood is distilled 7-10 days and then again for 10-15 days and the fire goes all that time. In Laos it’s done with coal, and that has to be made—and it’s not a nice job, I figure it could be compared to salting cabbage in outdoor pits for the North Korean Army in winter. I use gas for my Luban but I’m sure there’s a drawback to that too.
On the other side of things, Tajul has a goat donating scheme. They pick a village and donate female goats to a few women. The first baby goat the women keep. The second goes back to Tajul. The third and fourth kids are sold and the money divided. By the fifth kid the family keeps the goat. So everyone benefits—the women get a little income, their children get goat’s milk, and Tajul gets more money and goats to donate further.
The food here is great. Of course, that’s no surprise as it’s India. Assamese food is very different from the other Indian cuisines and there have been several dishes that I couldn’t even guess at. All veg though. For breakfast we had pooris lighter than a cloud and a chickpea/potato bhaji curry, for dinner last night and lunch yesterday and today there was plenty of local rice, with a strong and extremely pleasing fresh rice smell. Makes me realize how much rice smells old. There was a dish that looked like eggplant but was apparently papaya! Smelled like nothing I can imagine—I will ask further about it, but it was a milestone kind of dish…lots of dahl, vegetables including cauliflower, spinach fritters that disturbed me with their overwhelming tastiness and for some reason, their small size and shape. I would never have guessed spinach if I hadn’t been told. On and On. And one more meal tonight. All meals have been taken at Tajul’s sisters house here in Nagaon.
Even though my room here—I am staying at the Forestry Guest House, is cacophonous with traffic noise, the night air is also full of birdsongs, which I can hear in and out of the horns, motorbikes, and other screeching. I was surprised to learn that tomorrow I have a TV interview as well as with several print media!