Published in The National on August 17, 2001

The Soap Kitchen

Lena Liew learns about making ‘gourmet’ soaps with ‘grassroots’ ingredients.

"Tested on children, husbands and good friends only. No petro-chemicals. No alcohol. No detergent," said the poster.

Going by the steady crowd around the stall at the monthly Ela Beach Craft Market that day, I was clearly not the only one curious about the three cheery expatriate ladies dressed in aprons and chef’s hats.

On display were baskets and trays of soaps in all colours of the rainbow. Some were marbled; most had bits of stuff embedded - oatmeal, poppy seeds, orange peel, coffee grains, a flower petal or eucalyptus leaf. There were also some heart-shaped or flower-shaped soaps.

I kept getting nudged out of the cluster as I tried to finish reading the display poster outlining the "menu" of The Soap Kitchen.

It was some three weeks later that I finally found myself in The Soap Kitchen - the kitchen of Tania Edwards’ home. Over tea and muffins, I thought the soaps on Tania’s table looked yummy enough to eat.

Tania (pictured, left) is the driving force behind The Soap Kitchen.

"My mother-in-law came to visit a few months ago and she taught me how to make soap. She had been making her own soap back home in Canada for years and years.

"She was thrilled that the key ingredients were so easily available and cheap here, unlike in Canada where palm oil and coconut oil are expensive because they need to be imported," says the vivacious Tania.

She goes on to relate how she taught her haus boi and haus meri to make soap using these basic ingredients. "And they managed to make themselves a little profit selling their soap to their fellow villagers!" she chuckles.

Besides palm oil from Rabaul, coconut oil from Madang and tallow from the Ramu cattle farms, Tania and her "co-chef" Christine Halborrow (pictured, right) also use PNG Highlands’ honey and beeswax, olive oil, soya oil, cocoa butter, lanolin and milk to "flavour" some of their soaps.

Among the more interesting "flavours" are Walnut Expresso (made with triple strength coffee and ground walnut - good for washing off garlic and other kitchen odours from your fingers); Bugs Bunny (made with carrot juice, caramelised honey and beeswax); Lavender (helps relief stress, headache); and Tea Tree and Poppy (has antiseptic properties and helps get rid of dog fleas as well).

Some modifications to the Edwards’ "family recipe" found a blend of tallow (beef fat) and vegetable oil (palm oil or coconut oil) to be the most suitable for producing soaps that stay firm for a long period in PNG’s tropical climate.

Solid fist-sized chunks of tallow is melted in Globe cooking oil to form the base.

"Globe is a blend of palm oil and soya oil. On its own, vegetable oil is too soft for our tropical climate. The tallow serves to hold the mixture so that the end result is firmer," Tania explains.

As the tallow melts, Tania adds food colouring.

"If your food colouring comes in powdered form, then you add that only when you are ready to combine the base liquid and the sodium hydroxide solution," she says.

Tania explains why she has a kitchen thermometer immersed in the pot containing the base liquid and another in the jug of sodium hydroxide solution.

"It’s very important to be very precise with the temperature when you combine the sodium hydroxide solution into the base liquid, or your soap won’t turn out well."

That’s the tricky part. Otherwise the whole process is as easy as making a cake or a batch of cookies, adds Christine.

Tania brandishes a hand-held electric mixer as she gets ready to pour the sodium hydroxide into the base liquid.

"It’s much, much quicker this way," she says dramatically. "Otherwise you’d have to stir and stir the mixture the old-fashioned way, like my mother-in-law does!"

As her electric mixer whirrs, I watch the mixture get thicker and begin to "trace" – i.e. the pattern you drip on the surface of the mixture stays for a few seconds before dissipating.

Then Tania adds lavender essential oil and a palmful of dried lavender flowers.

This is the "cold saponification" method. Another method for making soap is the "hot saponification" method, where the mixture is kept on the boil and stirred continuously until it thickens. Obviously, the cold saponification method is easier.

Meanwhile, Christine has quickly laid out some empty one-litre milk cartons with the top cut off.

"See how we recycle household waste! We’ve tried using various household containers as moulds and found milk cartons the most convenient and cost effective.

"The shiny smooth inner surface of the milk carton acts like wax paper to prevent the soap from sticking to it. After the soap turns solid, we just rip the box off the block of soap!"

More importantly, says Tania, the solidified soap must be sufficiently cured after it is sliced into "bars" - for at least three weeks.

"Even after the liquid soap turns solid overnight, it is far from ready to be used. It will still be a little soft. That way it will easily get gooey and slimy."

Technically, homemade soaps do not get slimy in the shower or by the sink because they are pure soap with a high percentage of glycerin.

Glycerin is a natural emollient that soaks into the skin and nourishes it without leaving an oily feeling. Commercially made soaps are milled to remove the glycerin, which is then separately sold as an expensive beauty product for moisturising and smoothening the skin.

"That’s why commercial soaps tend to leave our skin dry and itchy and stripped of its layer of natural oils. On the other hand, our home-made soaps contain on average 25 per cent of glycerin while the other 75 per cent of it is pure soap," Tania says.

In the factories, water is added to the glycerin-stripped soap, before the reconstituted mixture is poured into moulds. It is the water component that causes a bar of soap to get slimy and finish quickly in the shower or by the sink.

As an aside, Tania adds: "Our soaps will last for years unused, although the scents might fade over time."

Tania practiced a few batches under her mother-in-law’s guidance before the senior Mrs Edwards left for home.

Then she got together Christine and another friend, Jill Davies, and taught them how to make soap. The ladies had gotten to know one another from their children’s school.

The mothers decided to call themselves The Soap Kitchen, to reflect the personal touch in their homemade soaps. On the last Saturday of May, they "tested the market" at the Ela Beach craft market.

"It was an utterly exhausting experience! At least the response was very encouraging - we managed to sell a few hundred kina worth of soaps," Tania says.

Although they are planning to set up stall again at the craft market on Aug 15, Tania and Christine maintain that The Soap Kitchen remains a hobby for them.

"We don’t want it to get too big. We’d be happy enough if we can cover our costs.

"We are first and foremost mothers with young children. Our families must come first. We don’t want to offer what we are not sure we can produce – both quality-wise and quantity-wise," Christine explains, referring to her two girls aged six and three.

Tania has two sons aged six and four and an eight-month-old baby girl.

"We are busy enough as it is, without having to spare the time and energy to face the hassles of running a business operation ... the staff, paperwork, taxation, etc.," she stresses.

I ask, and the mothers take a while to figure out what is the single most costly ingredient.

"It’s difficult to say. Because we are using stuff that we find in our homes. Take orange peel for instance - how do you calculate the cost of scrapping the skin off an orange that you are going to cut up and eat anyway?

"If at all, it would be the essential oils and herbs used for scenting the soaps. A tiny bottle of essential oils costs some K20. But then again, we only need to use a little each time."

The Soap Kitchen’s soaps are priced at a standard five toea per gram, and they are weighed with a sensitive electronic weighing machine in Tania’s kitchen before being hand-wrapped. A regular-sized bar of 80 grams would cost K4.

Bearing in mind the personalised hard work, unique "flavours", practical aromatherapeutic qualities and the long-lasting use of the soaps, a phrase from the Soap Kitchen’s pamphlet comes to mind: "Life’s too short to drink bad wine and use yucky soap."