Traditional Shampoo and Urban Laundry
I first came across soapnuts when I was living in Myanmar/Burma in 1999. I was working at a remote hotel on the shore of the mystical Inle Lake in Shan State. My oven was made from a large barrel and was wood-fired, whenever the kitchen staff noticed me making a move to try to get the fire under the oven going myself, they would quickly send the kitchen’s expert fire-maker to take over. They had already learned the hard way that they would be completely smoked out of the kitchen if they let me attempt it myself.
The staff at the Inle Princess Resort were really a fun bunch of people, we would go to the five day farmer’s markets early in the morning and stuff ourselves with treats of fried Shan tofu and cups of sweet, strong and delicious Burmese tea, on the walk home the girls would always amaze me with their taken-for-granted knowledge of nearly every plant and it’s medicinal benefits that we passed by. They would rave to me about the wonders of the traditional Burmese shampoo. The next time we were at the market they showed me bags hanging from strings full of a yellowish liquid with these soapnuts, tamarind pods and various other herbs in them. I gave it a try and was soon a convert. Although the shampoo didn’t suds up quite as much the shampoos I was used to, my hair was soon gleaming with a healthy shine.
At the time I didn’t know these soapy berries were called soapnuts and I soon forgot about them until one day I noticed someone blogging about soapnuts… “could it be the same thing that was used in the traditional Burmese shampoo?” I wondered, and yes, it was. Not too long ago I discovered a great Indian spice and various other foods store out in Coquitlam, Vancouver BC and in amongst the herbs and spices were bags of soapnuts, thrilled to bits I bought some and was soon using them in my laundry.
Doing laundry when living in an apartment is something I have done for many years now. I actually enjoy going to a laundromat…in fact it kind of reminds me of the stories I hear so often of some helpful aid organization bursting into a village in Africa (or SE Asia) and putting in plumbing so the ladies wouldn’t have to walk for miles to do their laundry or to fetch water, only to later discover that the ladies still preferred to go to the river to do their laundry. It generally turned out the ladies liked their time together, sharing stories and working together, and didn’t want to save time just to be lonely.
Although it takes me at least half a day to do laundry these days, I like getting out and walking through the neighborhood, admiring the progress of the backyard gardens and the changing seasons. My latest journey to the laundromat was in the pouring rain, it was Wednesday afternoon and I was expecting it to be empty…turns out it was the busiest I’ve ever seen it! So I know to avoid Wednesdays for laundry day now! But it is always interesting to see who it there.
They probably think I am a bit crazy, down at the laundromat, with my little bottles of oils and pouches of soapnuts, but who knows, maybe soon everyone will be doing it. One of the great things about the soapnuts I found in the Indian spice store is that they have their seeds, so next spring I am gonna try to plant some and see if I can grow my own soapnut tree…. I’ll keep you posted! There are many other plants that have saponin’s which is what makes the soapnuts suds up, such as soapwort (bouncing bet), horse chestnuts, and soapbark bush, but the soapnuts do a really great job. I have found, though, that if you have a stain, it is probably best to try to wash it out a bit first, and it probably wouldn’t work too well if you are a chef and trying to keep your jackets bright white–but then again, nothing really works for that except soaking it in chemicals overnight.
More uses for soapnuts are discussed here.
I’ve also been making soapberry pouches from recycled tea-towels for laundry and am selling them on my online Dawanda (for Europe) and ArtFire (North America) stores, if you are interested in trying out this handy nut, please stop by one of these stores and pick one up, I have various colors and any purchase made supports this site.
Five soapnuts are good for at least five loads of laundry, and if you would like to try growing a soapnut bush yourself you can find out more about that here.