logoA long time ago I had a conversation with Bassem Chahine who is the owner of Medwakh.com and the man who brought us Othmani tobacco. He has introduced many folks in the western world to their first experience with some of the most unique Middle Eastern tobaccos and is always looking for new and unique items to make available. We chatted about our views on tobacco, tradition and trends. I think you folks might like a glimpse into the thoughts of one of the most passionate people in the world of tobacco.

As an obvious fan of traditional tobacco and a manufacturer of hookah tobacco, what do you think about the current flavor trends? Are we going to see the traditional tobaccos fade into the past as candy flavors take over?

You pretty much hit the nail on it’s proverbial head with your current article. I have witnessed the rise of the Western hookah tobaccos with much interest over the last 5 or 6 years, and one important thing you may or may not know, I’m not a hater. Lol! I truly enjoy certain flavors of some of the modern moassals, and I think the hookah world is big enough and the hookah community flexible enough, that there is room for all. I will admit, at first I thought it was a new flavor profile that would eventually fade, but once the developers figured out their customer profile and dialed in their product, the hookah world received one of the more interesting and dynamic changes it’s seen in the last 75 years.

I am at heart, however, a traditionalist, as I am an at least 5th generation hookah lounge owner. My family has owned/supplied tobacco souks in the Middle East as far back as we can remember. I grew up in the business, and can remember, as a child, the privilege of rolling/wetting tombac and setting up a hookah for my great-grandmother in her kitchen in Lebanon. I can also remember watching my grandfathers and father making moassal, as they cut the leaf, and would add fruit and molasses and then seal them in their wooden barrels and allow the moassal to sit in the sun for days. These are the memories and flavors that I grew up with.

But, with so many companies trending toward the modern style sweet stuff, what made you want to rally behind the traditional? 

As I said, I’m not a hater. I think there’s a place for washed tobacco, for Canadian Virginian Leaf as pale and pure as paper, and for intense ‘candy’ type flavors. I enjoy many of them. But as I saw so many of the established hookah tobacco companies rush to match the new style tobacco’s, and abandon or neglect the tobacco’s that were established, I felt the need to explore the roots (sorry, lol!) of my tobacco heritage. The mild success of my little internet company, Medwakh.com, has given me many opportunities over the last couple years to travel, see, and meet people I otherwise would never had the chance to. One of those places has been Turkey.

Oh yea? I think Turkey is one of the most under-appreciated hookah smoking regions. I’m happy to see more people checking out Turkish pipes and tobacco. I’d say I have you to thank for a lot of that.

I was honestly stunned at the diversity and depth of the hookah culture there. Being Arab, I of course assumed all things hookah were Middle East-centric, and visiting Turkey was an eye-opening experience. Sure, there are big plants cranking out mass marketed tobacco, but there are many more ‘backyard’ companies doing things the way they’ve been doing them for generations. And the attitude of most those families is truly refreshing, I must say. More often than not, when offered a chance to expand their market and increase their products exposure, they weren’t interested. They were happy making a quality product. In fact, as a side note, one of the more interesting differences I found was that as a purchaser, when I would attempt to negotiate the sellers price by buying a larger quantity, the price would go up, not down! The way they look at it is that they are comfortable and profitable at the sales levels they are at, and increasing the same makes more work and risk so they should charge more. Takes a while to wrap your head around that concept when you’ve mostly got Western business experience under your belt!

Did you find anything really interesting while you were there? I have had some friends who traveled in the Middle East and would tell stories about all the fascinating little shops they came across who were making unique tobacco.

I did find a small tobacco company that I fell in love with, Othmani Tobacco. The owner, Ertan, and I just hit it off philosophically with our takes on the hookah tobacco business. He’s about my age (mid-20’s), went to school in the US, and is now stepping full time into his family’s business. I initially found Othmnai Tobacco Company when I was searching for a company to make hookahs for us, and didn’t even know they made tobacco until we had completed our first hookah transaction. On my second visit to Turkey, Ertan took me to their tobacco ‘factory’, a maybe 1,200 sq ft building in one of his uncles backyards. There I saw how they cure and cut the leaf, mix the ‘sauce’ with the product, and slowly apply low heat to the product for a short while to enhance the flavor absorption. And it was truly some of the best traditional moassal I’ve smoked in a long while.

Is the tobacco you’re offering that same recipe you fell in love with or did you adapt it for the western market? I know that tastes in the US and Canada are vastly different than those in Turkey. 

I immediately knew I wanted to bring Othmani moassal to the West and share it, and that is what I’m trying to do. The leaf they use is all Turkish in origin, and the cut is also traditional. We have had many arguments over the little details, but Ertan and I were always in agreement that we wanted to bring the truest form of Othmani Tobacco to the West that we could. Some of things that I compromised on, for instance, were things like stem in the leaf mix. I wanted an absolutely clean product, no stems or few as possible. Ertans uncle, Nazim, would patiently explain to me that a small amount of small stems is part of the flavor profile of the tobacco. I would say, ‘yeah, but there are bits of stems in our moassal’, and he would laugh and say ‘ of course, it’s how it’s always been made’. Well, I had wanted a traditional line of moassal, after all, so I gave in.

So, if I somehow got my hands on some tobacco straight from the Othmani factory I would find a familiar product?

The most important thing to me, after all, is the quality of the smoke and flavor in the traditional sense. I think we’ve managed to bring that to our product, with a few necessary compromises. Othmani moassal is made with locally sourced molasses and a little honey, and we do have a little glycerin also. Not for the ‘cloud’ production, but because we are not allowed by the US FDA to use certain natural fruits and nuts for flavoring, so we have to use glycerin based flavorings in some of the products. In fact, you’ll see that while Othmani produces decent clouds, they’re not huge billowing behemoths like with some brands. This is because we use as little glycerin as possible, not as much as possible as some do. That’s why it takes a little more heat to get Othmani going than other moassals, the more glycerin in your moassal the easier it is to start.

That brings up a good question. You mention the use of nut flavoring and I heard inklings that the tobaccos are nut allergy safe, but I’d love to get that info right from the source. Care to weigh in?

Yes, as much as any mass produced product can be.

Is Othmani Tobacco entirely made in Turkey with Turkish ingredients?

All of the most substantial ingredients are locally sourced in Turkey. The only ingredients not locally sourced are the aforementioned glycerin based flavorings. We actually export those to Turkey for the moassal to be made.

I’ve gotta ask; what’s with the color? Does such a traditional tobacco usually come colored like a candy apple?

Why oh why is there red dye in your tobacco? There will not be for long. This is one of those details that Ertan and myself have been going back and forth on, and I’ve convinced him we do not want to use the dye anymore. Dye is used to disguise the actual natural coloring of the tobacco. Many large companies buy whatever leaf they can, and dump it all together  The dye allows them to disguise any obvious differences in the mix. Small companies like Othmani started using it years ago because, well honestly, because the big guys were doing it. We don’t need it, I don’t like it, and it will be phased out sooner then later.

Are there more flavors on the horizon?

Yes, but I want to get a handle on these initial 15 first. The logistics of this operation had turned out to be quite a bit more to handle than I anticipated, and I don’t want to screw it up by taking more on initially than we can manage. Importing tobacco for manufacture/distribution is 10X the headache than making it domestically. But I feel it’s worth the trouble.

Do you use a particular strain of tobacco? Is the tobacco grown in a particular region? I’m a cigar and pipe dork, so that’s very interesting stuff to me. I spend so much time comparing blends and ratios of different leaves and cultivars that it’s kind of silly.

Lol! Go find your own tobacco company!

You’ve discovered my plot to steal all your secrets for making great tobacco. Thanks for foiling my plans, but I would like to truly thank you for putting up with all my questions. You’ve given me a great glimpse into your process and your passion. It’s quite admirable.

Again, man, thanks very much for your interest!  If there is anything I can do for you, or anything I did not address, please let me know.

Take good care!

Bassem Chahine

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