By Wyn Tin Tut
Travelers through the ages have described the Myanmar people
as having the air of princes as they regally go about puffing on the slim green
cheroots. And to see a country lady giving satisfying puffs on her huge cornhusk
cheroot must be a treat for visitors as it is for her!
Even with the popularity of the western cigarettes, the cool and mild cheroot is
still the preferred smoke, especially in the countryside.
With strong traditions of hospitality, any visitor to a house in the country
would have betel, pickled tea and cheroots offered as soon as he sits down on
the reed mat. In the cities, this is replaced with a cup of coffee or a glass of
Old folk poems tell of a country lass rolling cheroots with her own hands to
offer to her love; she would not trim the leaf with scissors, she said, for what
harshness is it to use metal! Instead, she would bite gently with her teeth the
more to sweeten the taste.
The filling is made of shredded tobacco leaf, and about an equal amount of
chopped tobacco stalks so that the taste is not strong. According to the secret
formulas of the different companies, additives of such diverse ingredients as
tamarind pulp or sweet jaggery make the cheroots differ in taste. The ratio of
the mild and strong leaves is also a secret of each company. The best companies
even vary their formula according to the season: a milder smoke for the hot
summers, and a stronger one for cold wet days. This is really paying attention
to customer needs.
To prepare, the tobacco plant stems are cut into 20cm.lengths, and smoked on a
fire of burning sawdust. Then they are chopped until they are in small pieces.
Softwood from another plant is also chopped and prepared the same way, and both
mixed. The chopper is lined with a metal blade worked by foot, with someone else
pushing the fibres back into place. The dry fibres are then kneaded with
tamarind, jaggery, pounded cloves or cinnamon before being dried again. This is
mixed with shredded tobacco leaves in the correct ratio.
The outer skin is made not of paper but of the Tha-nut hpet leaves of the
Sebesten tree (Cordia dichotom) pressed smooth. In the old days, they are laid
in overlapping circles inside a large wok. A heavy bag filled with sand pressed
it down, while the wok was heated. Now the cheroots industries use faster
methods to dry and flatten the leaves. Somehow they retain the beautiful green
luster that adds to the charm of the cheroots.
First the leaf is cut in shape, then the filter is placed at the end and mixed
tobacco fillings are laid along the leaf. With one deft motion the cheroot is
rolled, and the strip of paper with the printed brand name is wrapped around it
and glued in place. A needle is used to close the tip.
To be packed by the hundred or by fifty, a mechanical counter is not needed. A
young man sitting in front of a pile of cheroots scoops up some in his two
hands, and just by quickly scanning the two sides he can count the numbers and
knows in an instant if he holds a hundred. If there is two or three extra, never
more than that, he flicks them away with his thumb. Within seconds he has
counted a hundred, placed them on the packing paper, and within a few seconds
more he has the packet neatly glued.
Some cheroots are rolled very slim and short and some bigger and heftier. The
self-rolled smokes of the farmers' wives are made with cornhusk. The filters are
either rolled cornhusk, for a sweeter smoke, or else pressed sugarcane fibers
for a stronger one. They are rolled and glued together with a square of
During the monsoon, the rolled cheroots are heated in large trays over a
charcoal fire so that they will not become damp.
The dust and fragments of leaf and tobacco are bought by farmers who carry it
off by the cartload, for it is the best organic insect repellent and fertilizer
Cheroots factory workers are mostly women; it gives them a chance to earn,
without disrupting housework. They can also take home the fillings and trimmings
and work at home. A cheroot factory is a merry place; as fingers fly through the
motions, the mouths are not still either: there is song, there is gossip. The
sweet and simple smoke of the cheroot, not too harmful to health or too pungent,
seems admirably suited to the natural sweetness of the Myanmar character.