Some of my early memories are of smells and tastes: the taste of the first summer strawberries, of apricot stolen from a neighbor’s garden, of warm rye bread for which I had to stand in line for half an hour, of mozzarella di bufala purchased from the store owner in Forlì who had secret intentions of marrying me to his son. It is difficult to imagine how to separate what came first, but the scents fascinate me, wherever they occur.
As I am peeling green mangoes for my Kerala-style fish curry, the scent of green, piney and slightly floral fruit reminds me of India. I envision small streets in Poona, a city in the state of Maharashtra, where the stalls would be laden with various fruit—towering piles of mango, inky black jamun, a local sweet-sour fruit, pink and white guava, pomegranates sliced to reveal their jewel box-stuffed-with-rubies innards, slices of coconuts ready to eat. The light refracted through the clouds is soft and radiant, filling everything with a glow that makes bright colors shine. Looking up while walking through the Old Delhi market is a dangerous endeavor, lest one to lose a sense of navigation through the dense crowds of people and moving traffic. However, whenever one manages to do so, one cannot help noticing exquisitely carved jali (marble panels), with their filigree patterns obscured by huge billboards closer to the ground.
India is a place for the scent obsessed, although at first it is an utter sensory overload. Jasmine, cumin, coriander, cardamom, mango peels, condensed milk, bananas, garbage, smell of bhaaji fried and breads roasted. It is the mélange of olfactory sensations that only can be understood when trying paan for the first time–a blend of spices, coconut, crystal sugar, rose jam and betel nuts, wrapped in betel leaves. There are also versions with tobacco. Placing the entire thing in the mouth and then taking a bite sends a kaleidoscopic refraction of sensations—from sweet to spicy to bitter to refreshing and back in no particular order. Yet, it is the light and the scents that I recall most vividly, the sheer vastness and sensation of both. It is the core of my memory, and it is what draws me back to India.
At this point, onion has already been blended with fresh coconut shavings, curry leaves and ground coriander, cumin and red chili pepper. As I smell wet masala paste, with its creamy scent, laced with green, lemony and sulfurous notes, I think of Jean-Claude Ellena’s Un Jardin Sur le Nil for Hermès, which seemed to have started as green mango, lotus blossom and carrot. I set the pan on fire, add some water and let it simmer. By the time, I have to add pieces of swordfish and ivory tinged with green mango slices, the scent rising forth is intoxicating and mouthwatering, made more floral by the coconut milk addition. The fragrance of green mango melting into the juices and coconut milk lacks the sugary sweatiness of ripe fruit, while instead possessing a pleasantly astringent quality, with a teasing floral accord hiding underneath the piney notes. Once my curry is finished, and I am inhaling the buttery scent of basmati rice as it cooks, the fragrance of my kitchen is simply wonderful, good enough to be bottled.
Photo of green mangoes from garandee.exblog.jp.