A Long Way to Go for Chinese Tobaccos

A. Miller

One day wandering the streets with a friend, I notice a lady selling tobacco accessories and ask to see her imported tobacco selection. She walks to the neighboring shop and, from a drawer under a display of jade jewelry, pulls out a small bag filled with maybe ten different varieties of foreign tobacco. Like most places, the bags consists of primarily Captain Black and Sunday’s Fantasy, the latter of which is for some reason the primary tobacco offered consistently around here. But there is also something a little different, two plastic-sealed corrugated-cardboard pouches of tobacco I’ve never seen before. On closer inspection they claim to be pipe tobacco from Shanghai. I haggle the owner down to around $5 for one pouch (there are two available, but I don’t want to get carried away). She’s angry with me and claims she’s selling them at a loss, which is disconcerting to me, because if that’s true she must be having a serious problem moving the stuff. But nonetheless I take home what I hope is a prize and not a shame.

Later, I’m sitting with this lime green pouch on my desk and my fellow American pipe-smoker friend is sitting next to me smelling the pouch and complaining it smells of peat moss.

Corrugated-Cardboard Pouch Note: Peat Moss.

I try to shrug it off as the complaint of a mostly aromatic smoker. Of course he doesn’t like it, it doesn’t smell of honey or chocolate or something. But somehow I know he’s just speaking the truth. At his suggestion I prepare myself by dialing up 120 on my phone (the local equivalent of 911) and prepare a bowl. I’m packing a cheap Chinese corn-cob that I fully intend to throw away should this be so bad I need to burn the evidence.

As I grab my matches I’m wondering how I can write a tobacco review about something that smells like it will be so awful. I’m running through the different words I know to describe combinations of vomit and feces, and considering how many I can feasibly fit in to one article. Then on the char I’m pretty impressed with how mild this is, not a bad flavor at all through the first few puffs.

Char: Mild burley-like flavors.

But then, just when I’m starting to think I was jumping the gun with my words of disgust, the aftertaste hits me like a rookie linebacker on his first day in the big leagues. While the tobacco itself tastes of little more than a standard mild-burley (I have no idea if this is burley or really even tobacco for that matter), the aftertaste is a chemical fruity-sea-food. If it sounds shocking, it really truly is. The package says, "Everything passes away, but the aftertaste has no limits."

Unfortunately, I could not describe it better myself.

While it’s everything I have to keep the horror off my face, I manage just long enough to rinse my mouth out with some local hard-alcohol and hand the pipe to my friend sitting with me. "It’s surprisingly not bad," I say. This excites him and he grabs the pipe and takes two or three puffs before throwing his hands up and screaming bloody murder looking for something to relieve the murdered taste buds in his mouth.

Now before you continue, I suggest you raise the pipe you’re currently holding in toast for what is probably a very smokable tobacco. I’ve smoked a lot of tobaccos over the years that I’ve disliked for any number of reasons: too aromatic, too sweet, too much tongue bite, too little flavor, too much flavor, too much nicotine, you name it. But I’ve only recently had the experience of smoking tobaccos I didn’t like because they induced vomiting. And while some writers for this site are sacrificing their regular smokes for fancy pipes and luxury tobaccos, I may well be risking life and limb for you. While in this one situation I may not have actually passed from this life to the next (you know the place with bottomless tobacco jars), I feel there is a part of my mouth that was lost forever.

I should have stopped with that lime green pouch. But because I’m a sucker for punishment, later in week, having been told by two or three different friends the bundles of tobacco sold in the market are actually quite smokable, I lead an American friend of mine through the local markets to find a bundle for sale. The smallest portion the man is willing to sell is a full pound of full-leaf "Dry Tobacco." My friend laughs hysterically that he’s about to lose $12 dollars over something that might well be a terrible smoke, but nonetheless picks up the roll of tobacco under his arm, like he might an oversized gym bag, and heads home.

That night while sitting around a picnic table on my friend’s roof we sift through the pound of full leaves to find the parts without visible mold (no this is not virginias-sugar) growing on them. We ask a local friend of ours who sells tobacco what he thinks of the mold and his answer is instantaneous, "It’s no problem," he insists, "tobacco just molds, don’t worry about it, smoke it." I’m pretty sure he threw in a word like "pansy" at the end of that, but thankfully I don’t have much of a vocabulary to understand insults.

The next few minutes are spent taking bets over who is foolish enough to actually smoke some of this bundle of leaves. "The locals can’t be dying or they wouldn’t be selling it," is my argument, but really I’m trying to justify this experience to myself as much I am to my friends. Finally I find a mold-less section and peel the stem away from the middle of the leaf, then fold, break, and attempt to rub it out. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I try to treat the leaf as a flake tobacco because that’s the closest thing I know.

It isn’t working.

Finally my pipe is loaded with ripped, folded, and squished tobacco leaves, and my lighter is at the ready. My friends ask if I’m really ready to die over this. I know they’re speaking in hyperbole, but they’ve made the joke so many times I’m beginning to get nervous myself. Eventually I choose to ignore them and I put fire to the pipe, I take about five puffs, make a quick tamp, then take three more puffs before I simply can’t continue. But that doesn’t mean I can’t suggest my friends try it. I shoot for something vague like, "You have to try it yourself, I’ve never had anything quite like it."

Then, perhaps with deadened mental capacity from the previous local tobacco, and having seen that I didn’t immediately fall out of my chair heaving on the ground from the mold spores harvesting offspring in my lungs, my friends are willing to try a puff. Now it’s probably true that I should find less joy in my friend’s pain than I do, but it’s somehow comforting to me that I’m not suffering alone through this experience.

While my friends smoke their three puffs in disgust, I partake of a bag of onion ring snacks from the Philippines. These, while not perfect, taste much more like the western version than the tobacco I had today. And while I feel it unfair to judge a whole genre of local tobacco based off of one bundle, I am also unwilling to give any more a try to see if it was an unusual experience. For what it’s worth though, we did hand the pipe to our local tobacco-seller friend who took a few puffs and told us this is exactly how it’s supposed to taste.

Now I want to review for you the flavors that happened in my mouth, but I’m afraid my palate and vocabulary may lack the necessary skill to both discern and describe what I experienced. While the tobacco smells a bit like cigar tobacco, it tastes nothing like any cigar I had ever smoked. Although, if you bought a cheap grocery-store cigar and smoked it half way down, then set it out in the rain, re-lit it and then smoked it in a gymnasium changing room, you’d probably have a pretty good idea of what this was like.

Tonight I pack my bowl with Orlik because it’s the little things about imported tobacco that make them a much more pleasant smoke. For one, I know what it tastes like. And I know the Virginia and Perique is authentic enough to have some world-renown. I know the bowls-worth of flake tobacco I smoke is not covered in mold and likely will not kill me. And in smoking this kind of tobacco I can, with some confidence, leave my cell phone off and in my pocket—no quick ambulance access necessary.

6 Responses

  • In a land where they make artificial rice out of plastic, nothing surprises me. You really ought to haul some of that stuff to a lab (or maybe a TCM hospital or herb shop?) and have it analyzed to see if it’s even tobacco.
    Meanwhile, I admire your courage for even trying the stuff.

  • Oh, I agree fully. I have heard that raw, unprocessed tobacco is actually quite nasty, so, all things being equal, you may have just that on hand. Thanks for suffering to bring us that information.

  • I suspect this is a good description of what the attempt to find pipe tobacco will be like in the USSA in the not too distant future.