Oman – how to use frankincense without the need for dragons

To my unrefined nose it’s a load of romantic nonsense when people enthuse about the air of their holiday destination being scented with blah, blah or blah.  I can appreciate the odd waft of flowers, baking, wet soil, etc, but not with every step taken inside and out.  Oman, however, is the exception where my sense of smell is concerned.  Oman and frankincense; you almost can’t have one without the other.  The smell of frankincense starts in the airport, then the taxi, hotels, shops and, of course, the tens and tens of stalls selling and burning frankincense.  The dragons will come later, don’t think I’ve forgotten.

Being a sucker for holiday memorabilia, having poo-pooed all things frankincense prior to visiting Oman and reading about suggested frankincense souvenirs, it didn’t take long before exploration and fascination with the many frankincense shops around Mutrah Souq developed into near-obsession levels.  The result is obvious, though what is surprising is that I actually burn the frankincense bought there as opposed to it lying unopened on my return to very-not-like-Oman London.

Frankincense is harvested by cutting the wood of a Boswellia genus of tree, native to the southern Arabian states and north Africa, though primarily associated with Oman, and allowing the resin to “bleed”.  The slow-forming drops of resin are called tears and once dried make up the knobbly lumps of frankincense for sale, ready for burning or further processing into powder or oil.  Or chewing, as apparently the “tears” used to be chewed for health benefits; frankincense chewing gum, anyone?  Actually, it is still used in some toothpastes to this day and if you Google the health benefits of frankincense, its use in your life would probably mean you’d be healthy forever.  If only.

The frankincense most commonly burnt in Oman is the pure resin rather than the more familiar incense sticks or oil.  It’s far easier to use than the need for charcoal burning would suggest.

You need a burner (or something heat resistant on a heat resistant surface), small charcoal briquettes, matches and frankincense as basics.  Salt and small tongs or big tweezers (mine are from my childhood stamp collecting days.  Yes, really) make things even easier.  I have written a basic description below the photos.

As for the dragons, in the days when frankincense was more valuable than gold, millenia ago, merchants and growers spread the word that the precious trees from which the frankincense resin is bled from were guarded by dragons.  Nowadays, it is largely accepted that dragons do not guard frankincense-producing trees, but they should because for me frankincense is particularly precious for being repugnant to mosquitoes (burnt or as oil applied to skin or clothes).  And, no, don’t get your hopes up, there are mosquitoes in Oman despite the abundance of frankincense in the air and, yes, being susceptible to mosquito attack I did douse myself in frankincense oil and, yes, it worked.

-How to burn frankincense resin-

If you are a video-instruction kind of person, YouTube has an eclectic selection of instructive clips on how to burn the resin, ranging from heavily Christian to heavily hippy.  If YouTube trawling isn’t your thing, this is my fairly basic method for a fairly simple process.

Most charcoal disks have a coating that makes them light easily (mine is gold), so can be lit most efficiently with the briquette held in tongs and a match or lighter burning one area – once sparking a tiny bit, the whole piece will light itself and heat up soon after.  When it is sparking and you can feel the heat coming off it, place in the burner with the briquette disc indent facing upwards and ideally wait between five to ten minutes until you can see the charcoal going white.  Optional salt (it reduces smoke and slows the burn time a bit) can be added to fill the briquette indent as a bed on which the resin pieces can burn.

Then add a few pieces of frankincense on top of the briquette, or atop the salt if you’re using it.  It will emit the distinctive frankincense smell pretty much immediately.  Knock the resin off the charcoal once it’s blackened all over (or just leave it there) and add more.  The charcoal disc usually burns for about 30-40 minutes but maintains its shape unless you prod it with tongs (or similar; not your finger as that’d be stupid and you’d burn yourself and who would be that silly?!), at which point what’s burnt will crumble in a dusty poof.

I have impatiently added the resin pieces as soon as the charcoal is lit before.  That seems fine but it does smoke a lot and you get a charcoal smell mingled with the frankincense at first.  It smokes a fair bit less with a salt layer between the coal and the resin but I often forget the salt.  We live in a flat and smoke alarms have never been activated from burning frankincense but it can be mildly alarming how much smoke is emitted and it is an all-consuming smell, frankincense.