Arabian incense, perfumes, and oud

If you have ever smelled a Middle Eastern person's cologne or perfume as they walked past you, you might have wondered what makes it so much more exotic smelling. It's probably oud.

The word 'oud' literally means 'stick', but is used in the fragrance industry and in the Mideast to refer to the fragrant resinous wood from aquilaria trees after they have become infected with a type of mold. The healthy agarwood is fragrance free, but as it fights off the mold infection, it creates a resin that has become prized for its aromatic qualities. It can all vary by the country of origin, the conditions of growth and infection, and other factors. The final wood and resin or oil, if expressed out, are more valuable than gold. After all, it takes 20 kilos of agarwood to produce only 12 millileters of oil. The wood can be over $2000 per pound!

There are soooo many oud (fragrance) stores here because fragrance is really important to the Saudi people. Known for their hospitality, the bedouin will greet you with Arab coffee filled with cardamom, dates for nourishment, and fragrance. There's often an incense burner somewhere and they will waft the smoke onto you and your clothes as well as around the tent or room. One other touch might be the splashing of rose water on your hands. 

As mentioned, oud refers to the infected wood. You can burn this as incense. Perfume and fragrance makers will process the wood to extract the treasured oil from it. This is what they use in perfumes. Either way, oud has a very distinctive and exotic fragrance to it.

I had seen the pieces of wood in stores and also watched as a salesman would carefully sort through a bin of wood looking for specific pieces. I found one store which had a nice display of several kinds of oud, so I thought I'd see if I could an education. Waleed was kind enough to help me, but his English was a bit sketchy. I hope I kept the details right.

He pointed to the different windows and gave the prices and their rankings. The most expensive was over $1000 Saudi riyals for 30 ounces and the prices, and apparently quality, went down to about 350 SR. They were also from different countries. One was from Cambodia, another from India, etc.  

Waleed went and grabbed the incense burner so he could show me the difference. First step is to light a piece of charcoal. Then you snip off just a tiny piece of wood and put it on top of the charcoal so it smolders and gives off smoke. He did this with a couple versions of oud and the fragrance was a bit different for each. He explained that you burn this for about five minutes in your home and the smell should linger for several days, depending on the quality of the oud.

The amount you see on the left is 30 ounces and four pieces. Waleed then took snippers and cut it into smaller pieces. The size you need is smaller than your pinky fingernail though.

Here you can kind of make out the bit of shiny edge as the resin is melting and smoking.

Waleed then showed me another product which is a paste made from oud resin, other fragrances, balsam, patchouli, and more. There are also some woods that have extra fragrance soaked into them. These are known as bakhoor.

Once the incense or bakhoor is burning, you only need to let it burn for about five minutes, preferably walking around your house with it or wafting it on your clothes. The fragrance can linger in your house for several days.

There are so many to choose from, but Waleed gave me the snipped pieces you see above and a sample of a couple pieces of paste. I look forward to trying them out back in Sacramento!