07 October 2011

Tongan beauty products: the all-in-one soap, exfoliant, and perfume

 The crushed tuitui for some reason
reminds me of pecan pie
One morning in 'Eua as I was strolling through town, I stopped to talk to some neighbours, who were sitting in the shade next to their house with a big pile of brown nuts in front of them. I saw them scooping out the center of each nut, and popping a handful into their mouths. After masticating it into a fine pulp, each woman carefully scooped the mash out, and deposited it in a bag next to her. "Try some! It's Tongan soap!" one neighbor said, depositing a gob on my arm and instructing me to spread it around.

This was my rather abrupt introduction to one of the best Tongan beauty products out there: tuitui, or in English, candlenut.

I rediscovered the wonders of tuitui for myself this week, when one of my coworkers came around with little bags for sale filled with a mixture of the pounded nuts combined with a mix of other sweet-smelling roots and plants. The technology of plants is amazing in Tonga; to my untrained eye, there seems to be a million different useful plants many people seem to know about: some for dyes, paintbrushes, or jewellery, others for moisturizing the skin, curing diarrhea, or relieving stomach cramps. Tuitui alone is useful as soap, shampoo, exfoliating skin scrub, moisturizing oil, and perfume. An all-in-one natural beauty product that is completely natural, chemical free, and I get to chew? Sold.

The next morning after my workout, I surveyed the little bag I'd bought dubiously, not too sure about shoving a handful of unfamiliar plant material in my mouth, not swallowing, and then spreading this delightful mass all over my body. Taking a deep breath, I shook some out of the bag, and tipped a small palmful in my mouth. It tasted pleasantly like the rich, ever so slightly bitter flavour of walnuts, and I fought the urge not to swallow. It's been a long time since I've had fresh walnuts.

"Processed" tuitui
The creamy, gritty resulting mixture reminded me of a high-class exfoliating scrub, and as I dutifully scrubbed it on my arms, I felt the patina of oily dusty city sweat dissolve, the scum that soap never really seems to fully take care of. The tuitui released a pleasant, nutty, floral smell that had a hint of spice, somewhat like fennel, combined with a nut-oil smell that reminded me of the aroma of the linseed oil I used when I worked with oil paints in the US. I rinsed the grit off, more enamoured with this mixture as the minutes of using it went by. When I toweled dry, my skin was super-smooth, ultra-clean, smelled perfumed, and actually glowed.

The day before, the sale of tuitui around the office had sparked a 30 minute conversation with my department manager and friend, Sina, who aside from creating a mean business plan, is a wealth of knowledge about all things plant. She told me that alternatively to using it in the shower, I could wrap the mashed mixture in a little square of unpainted tapa cloth (the soft, light brown textile made from pounded mulberry bark), squeezing out the tuitui oil to dab as perfume.

A creative business person sells tuitui soap.
"Kukui" is another way to refer to the nut.
It also can be used to enhance the fragrance of Tongan oil, the sweet-smelling coconut oil that you can buy at the market in old vodka bottles and recycled soy sauce dispensers. Sina roughly described the process to me: if you have several days of hot sun, you grate coconuts, and mix the pulp with a selection of dried flowers, cinnamon leaf, sandalwood, and plenty of tuitui, leaving it out in the sun in a wide-mouthed kava bowl. Several days later, after adding more coconuts to the reducing mixture, you can strain out the pulp, leaving a sun-cured aromatic, moisturizing oil that gives thick curly Tongan hair a beautiful sheen and ensures its wearer will always smell good - a matter of huge importance in Tonga.

Sina's aunt, a pillar of grassroots development in Tonga who is now in her eighties and has been involved in projects all over the country, is often complemented for her clear complexion and soft skin. An incredibly well-spoken woman, she credits it to tuitui, which she regularly chews and uses. If you're wondering about the efficacy of chewing it, the process helps break down the compounds in the nut, making it more effective as soap, and releasing the useful oil. And you only chew your own; the crushed tuitui sold at the office was pounded with a mortar and pestle, not with teeth!

Everyone I have talked to about tuitui throughout our time in Tonga has mentioned how much they like using it, and how much they enjoy the smell over commercial cologne. In fact, yesterday I was chatting with the manager of Langafonua about my experiments with tuitui, during which she told me her strategy: buy a bag of uncracked nuts, crack them, dig out the nutmeats, and freeze them. While the bucket is filling, start chewing five or six of the nuts, and by the time you step in the bath, your soap/exfoliant/perfume is ready. After we had talked for some time about the subject she said "You know, I think I'll go to the market this afternoon to buy more. All this talk of tuitui has made me want to use some!"


  1. Carissa is trying to go hippie and make her own home products like laundry detergent, dish washer soap, and face scrub. This sounds like something she'd love to experiment with! Any chance we can get some shipped to us here in the US?

  2. Very cool! Yeah, I've experimented with that too... I'd love to hear about what works!
    The first place I'd look if I were you is a store that sells Indonesian food supplies. This wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleurites_moluccana) talks about it being used to make a thick Indonesian sauce and has a nice picture of a package for sale.

    If you can find it pre-packaged, that would solve the problem of 1-the nut spoiling during the shipping process, and 2- clearing fresh, unpackaged plans through customs. Let me know what you find, and if you have no luck, I'll bring some back for you when we visit in 2 months! :)

  3. Awesome article Elena :)

  4. Thank you! Awesome performance yesterday, Ti! :D


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