I always carry a small notebook to write down any impressions or observations, particularly as they pertain to sensory memories—interesting scents, unusual flavors, striking combinations, or sometimes just memories that I want to retain. There is so much more to exploring scents than just a perfume bottle. It could be something as simple as finding a fragrant bush of dog roses on my way to the office or a delicious new fruit I encounter during my expeditions to the Chinese or Indian shops. As I look back at some of the notes, I find they comprise a diary, tracing my discoveries and new sources of inspiration. The 2010 highlights below come from the notes I have taken over the course of the year. While my travels over the past year have taken me as far as India, New York City provides me with just as many interesting discoveries. It is on this journey that I would like to take you as I look over my 2010 diary notes. Perhaps, it can inspire you as well.
The political upheavals in Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union have resulted in the immigration of its Jewish community to the United States. Almost 50 thousand Bukharian Jews, who mostly come from Uzbekistan, live in New York’s Rego Park and Forrest Hills areas. A strip along 108th Street in New York’s Rego Park is called Bukharian Broadway for a reason—it offers an interesting cluster of Bukharian businesses, from stores and butcher shops to bakeries and restaurants. The food of the Bukharian community is vibrant and piquant, inspired by intricate Persian traditions, nomadic rustic simplicity, and the boldness of Chinese flavorings. The black cumin, lamb and star anise of lagman (noodle soup,) the verdant intensity of bakhsh (rice with spinach, coriander and dill cooked in a cotton bag,) and the savory richness of mai birion (fried fish marinated in garlic sauce) are only a few of the interesting dishes one can try. I love the cumin and onion marinated lamb kebabs and flaky samsa (lamb and onion pastries) served at the Tandoori Bukharian Bakery (99-04 63rd Rd). The cumin flavored non toki, a uniquely Bukharian flatbread, should not be missed either. Nagila Market (63-69 108th St) is run by Iranians and offers many unique foods, including Uzbek sundried apricots, Iranian tart dried barberries and the famous Fergana valley devzira, the red rice used in traditional plov.
New York Chinatown in the summer definitely provides a full spectrum of olfactory impressions—the pungency of fish markets and the smell of rotting vegetables from green-grocers clustered around Mott and Mulberry Street, the aroma of golden baked pork buns along Canal Street, the dark sweetness of herbal shops interspersed in between… I love it all, and even the most touristy parts of Chinatown are fascinating. This summer I have been exploring the scents of tropical fruits, which can be found easily on Chinatown sidewalks sold by moving carts. The apricot-rose freshness of mangosteen is my favorite, closely followed by the sugary richness of longan and the grape-rose sweetness of lychee. Also memorable is pitaya, dragon fruit, a large fuschia pink orb with a tart watermelon flavor.
Enfleurage, a store in New York’s West Village, makes it possible to discover some of the finest ouds without having to travel to countries like Oman or Saudi Arabia. In fact, Enfleurage sources some of the finest materials from Salalah in Oman, including frankincense and ambergris. Their oud collection is available both as oils and as wood chips. A tiny sliver of fine oud burned like incense will perfume the house with a rich and complex fragrance. I recommend bringing a scarf, because it seems to be a pity to waste these amazing oils on paper strips, while testing them on skin can be quite overwhelming. A great place to go to be educated about natural essences.
Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue used to be the home of New York’s Syrian and Lebanese communities. While the number of Middle Eastern businesses has declined significantly over the past few decades, there are still many interesting places to explore. Sahadi’s (187 Atlantic Ave) is the most renowned store in the area, selling Middle Eastern spices, camel milk cheeses, Saudi Arabian dates, green Lebanese olives, and also a full range of European gourmet fare. Oriental Pastry and Grocery (170 Atlantic Ave) is another fantastic source of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking staples, including reasonably priced, high quality Lebanese olive oil. For fresh lamb and mutton that are so richly flavored that they require the simplest of marinades, the best place is Halal Meat Market and Grocery (232 Atlantic Ave). The store also offers other types of meat and poultry as well as a large collection of spices and herbs. I always finish my Atlantic Avenue trip by visiting Damascus Bread and Bakery (195 Atlantic Ave,) where one can find all sorts of delicious sweet and savory pastries, from meat triangles flavored with pomegranate molasses to flaky orange blossom and pistachio rolls. Their pita baked in the wood-burning oven on site is a revelation given its rich wheaty-creamy flavor and delicate smoky accent.
While I knew that certain types of moss are edible, I was surprised to discover it as part of a very famous spice blend in western India. Kala masala (also called goda masala) is one of the few composed spice blends women in that part of India keep on hand. It is used as a final spice layer on a dish, lending it an unusual depth and richness. Kala masala, which means black spice mixture, derives its name from the heavy toasting of spices that go into it: black cumin, coriander, chili peppers, black pepper. The sweetness of mace, clove and cinnamon is another interesting accord, while the milky richness of toasted coconut and poppy seeds smoothes out the sharp edges. It is a very nuanced, elegant blend, in which bittersweet moss (called dagad fool, stone flower, in Marathi) plays an important part—it gives kala masala an earthy richness, slightly reminiscent of the mossy effect in fine chypre fragrances like Guerlain Mitsouko.
As I leave Mumbai and head for the deep south of India, I enter what seems like another universe. Perhaps it is the southern relaxed demeanor and the richness of lush greenery that makes Kerala feel like an enchanted place. Despite being one of the poorest states in India in terms of GDP, it is the most socially forward and its 92% literacy rate is the highest among all Indian states. It is the cultural contrasts that make Kerala unique—the crimson Communist flags flying among the palms, the crosses on lotus flowers painted in churches, the Chinese tile ornamented 17th century synagogue. Keralites themselves are a diverse and fascinating people. I love observing ladies making breakfast in the open air kitchens of backwater villages; young girls chatty as a flock of parakeets on their way to school; fishermen bringing in day’s catch to the seashore auction. The scent of Kerala is a mélange of jasmine and coconut. The apricot jam and white petal scent of garlands that decorate women’s braids as well as the images of both Hindu gods and the Virgin Mary. The coconut, on the other hand, is the olive tree of the Indian south: every part is useful. The creamy-milky fragrance of coconut oil is just as likely to be found in beauty preparations for the skin and hair as in exquisite Keralite curries and chutneys.
Although Gujarati winters are closer to North American summers, the food nevertheless changes to reflect the cooler temperatures. Long simmering stews, stuffed breads, ghee and cardamom laced halwahs and lentil porridges grace the winter menu, replacing the tart, bright flavors of the summer. One particular dish struck me as particularly memorable. Undhiyu is made by stuffing eggplants, green bananas and purple yam with a delicious mixture of chickpeas flour, coconut, coriander and garam masala (warm spice mixture) and green garlic. The vegetables are then stewed in a clay pot over slow fire (traditionally, dying embers), until they turn into a melting, decadent mélange.
”This ice cream is so chewy, it needs a knife and a fork!” I was warned by my Turkish friend as we made our way through the line in Istanbul for some dondurma, traditional chewy Turkish ice cream. Its texture is indeed surprising—stretchy and chewy. It is cold, yet it does not melt. The inclusion of salep, a flour made from the root of the Early Purple Orchid, and a mastic resin impart these unusual qualities. The flavor of salep is a distinctive blend of violet, orange blossom and honey. Unfortunately, traditional salep flavor is much more difficult to find, since the orchids are severely overharvested. However, even without salep, dondurma flavored with bright resinous mastic, rosewater, pistachios or saffron is a beautiful dessert. While it does not contain heavy cream or egg yolks, its rich aroma and bold flavors more than compensate. A velvety mouthfeel imparted by mastic lends a seductive quality to this already quite luscious treat.
The Eastern maritime provinces of Canada have a stark, rustic beauty—craggy cliffs, rocky beaches, majestic vistas of grey ocean. As one walks through the sun weathered fishing villages, one notices the scent of salt, seaweed and bleached wood pervading the air. While cod fisheries have experienced severe declines over the years due to overfishing, the lobster industry has been having good seasons. The first time I tasted lobster at the rather rustic Lobster Pound in Hall’s Harbour, Nova Scotia, I finally understood why this seafood is so prized. The sweetness of lobster meat, with a delicious salty-green aroma is unforgettable, while the creamy-musky richness of roe is simply addictive.
Photography © Bois de Jasmin