Agarwood has been the most valuable spice since ancient times. In Song Dynasty, it has been considered as a currency that can be traded in the market like gold, - “a piece of agarwood is worth a piece of gold (一兩黃金一兩沈)”. It has been sought after by many people for thousands of years.
In the theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), agarwood is one of the top medicinal herbs. The Compendium of Materia Medica (本草綱目) records that agarwood has an excellent effect promote Qi and blood which will delay aging. However, similiar as other herbs, agarwood needs to go through a processing process before it can be used, since most agarwood trees grow in tropical regions, which contains very strong fire elements naturally.
So long ago, our ancestors have developed the processing method for agarwood to remove its strong fire elements and make it suitable for our body. In TCM, these methods are called 炮制, which is similar to cooking, all related to the use of fire, such as steaming, frying, roasting, boiling, etc.
At beginning, we need to break the agarwood into small pieces (沈香細剉). Then, we can put them into cotton bags and hung inside of a special cast iron pot (以絹袋盛於銚子當中). But don't reach the bottom of the pot (勿令著底).
After that, the most important thing is to prepare honey water. There is no record of which honey was used, nor the specific ratio of honey to water. After we tested different honey, the best was the Sidr honey from Yemen.
Then, we need to steam agarwood with honey water. The time recorded in the book takes a whole day, but in fact, the time required for different origins, thicknesses, and sizes of agarwood is different, and we need to decide according to the specific situation. BTW, remember to cook slowly over low heat (慢火煮).
Of course, the incense made from the processed one is absolutely different from the one using the raw materials. You'll find that it's easier to get into the deeper layers of our body, actually we "eat" it, not just let it stay on the surface of the olfactory cells in the nose.