A Year In Scents and Flavors

Novascotiacollage

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.

Black Cumin and Red Rice of Bukharian Broadway

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 Fruit Carts

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.

New York Enfleurage Oud

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 Atlantic Avenue Lamb and Bread

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.

Mumbai Moss and Black Spices

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.

Kerala Jasmine and Coconut

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.

Gujarati Winter Stews

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.

Turkish Chewy Ice Cream

”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.

Nova Scotia Lobster

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.

Best of 2010: Perfume Launches and Fragrance Reflections

Photography © Bois de Jasmin

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33 Comments

  • Carrie Meredith: I am so into the idea of chewy Turkish ice cream. I love mochi ice cream, which is chewy on the outside at least. A visit to Enfleurage is a place I dream of visiting, I hope I get to do it someday! December 29, 2010 at 12:24am Reply

  • Victoria: I am going to explore the Middle Eastern part of Queens next, and I will report on whether I will find the chewy ice cream there. It is not a specifically Turkish thing, from what I understand, since I have had it in the Middle East too. The Turkish kind was my favorite though, because the flavors were so rich! December 29, 2010 at 1:44am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you! That is just henna, and it lasted for 2-4 weeks. December 29, 2010 at 1:45am Reply

  • Grobust: Cool! I love that tattoo on your hand and your feet! Its so wonderful and amazing. December 29, 2010 at 12:53am Reply

  • Olfactoria: Victoria, this is a beautiful article! (Nathan Branch is quite right with what he smells for your future ;))
    I love that you live your passion for all things fragrant and follow and find it where ever you go. And how far you did go this past year…
    I long for New York when I read your impressions and I want to fly away to exotic locations and sample all the delicacies there – but no need, your description is good enough for me to live vicariously through you. At least there is no need to dream of Turkish ice cream, I can get that here. 🙂 December 29, 2010 at 7:05am Reply

  • Marina: Ah, it only makes my cabin fever worse. Want to go and explore, even if just to Rego Park.:) I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, the images are amazing, a visual feast. December 29, 2010 at 7:39am Reply

  • rosarita: What a wonderfully evocative article! I’m left both hungry and sad that none of those tastes are immediately available to me 🙂 December 29, 2010 at 8:14am Reply

  • dabney: Thank for that exquisite journey! I want to ‘save’ this one for furture enjoyment. 🙂 December 29, 2010 at 9:26am Reply

  • Britta: Lovely photos! Thank you for a great read with my morning coffee! December 29, 2010 at 11:10am Reply

  • Skilletlicker: When I lived in NYC I lived in the West Village. Where is Enfleurage Oud – it must be new-ish – and what was your favorite oil or item there? December 29, 2010 at 12:00pm Reply

  • Victoria: Birgit, thank you! I probably read way too many explorer novels when I was a kid (you know, Jules Vern, Mayne Reid, etc.), so I love exploring and discovering new things. Traveling to distant locales is great, but I am often just as excited to visit different NY boroughs. Exploring Bronx’s Italian markets or Queens with their whole spectrum of ethnic groups is so exciting.
    Vienna must be great in this respect too, as it has many different communities. December 29, 2010 at 12:28pm Reply

  • Victoria: Rego Park is fascinating, and there are so many different interesting stores, restaurants, bakeries! I am envious that you are so close to all that.
    Still snowed in? December 29, 2010 at 12:29pm Reply

  • Victoria: A, thank you. Do you have an Indian grocery store near to where you live? If so, you can try looking for Indian kulfi type ice cream, which is creamy, slightly grainy and is often nicely flavored with pistachios and rosewater. Different texture from Turkish, but interesting flavors too. December 29, 2010 at 12:30pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you for joining me for a ride. 🙂 December 29, 2010 at 12:31pm Reply

  • Victoria: Britta, thank you. I am glad that you’ve enjoyed it! December 29, 2010 at 12:31pm Reply

  • Victoria: Here is what it says on their site, “Located at 321 Bleecker Street in the heart of Manhattan’s West Village, Enfleurage has delighted aromatic enthusiasts since 1995.” I love their different ouds, and they have a few types. Laotian and Vietnamese are different from the ouds I have smelled in the Persian Gulf, but they are quite beautiful too. I especially love oud in slivers, because I burn it as incense, and it is the only place in NY where you can find a good quality oud wood.
    I also love their Omani frankincense, which is very pure and aromatic. In Oman and parts of the Middle East, they chew it as gum, and it is actually quite refreshing. December 29, 2010 at 12:35pm Reply

  • carole macleod: Hello!
    I am from NS, so it’s neat to read about my province on your blog. I’m guessing you were on the south shore-I’m from Cape Breton. Every year we have a lobster do, in the spring. Delicious!
    Happy New Year, and thank you for the years of entertainment and education!

    Carole December 29, 2010 at 12:42pm Reply

  • Victoria: Carole, I did not make it to Cape Breton, but I hope to do it as some point. For now, I have explored the south shore. I visited Peggy's Cove, which was amazing (top left picture of the collage was taken there.)
    I used to think that lobsters were completely overrated until I tried one in NS. It totally changed my perspective! So good!
    Happy 2011 to you too! Hope that it will bring lots of happiness and joy! December 29, 2010 at 12:55pm Reply

  • linda: Oh Thank you Victoria.
    So fun to read your article today! I traveled to India year before last and spent such wonderful time in and around Mumbai and later Chennai and Nellore. My little bag and contents held the fragrance of India, the incense, etc. for months afterwards…a smell I loved so dearly.
    I hope to go back one day.
    When I returned home I immediately bought an Indian cookbook and have so enjoyed the wonderful scents that come from cooking the spices.
    I would love to find a fragrance or two that bring back those wonderful scents of the temples, shrines, homes…
    Could you share with me your favorie scents from there and where to find them here? A fragrance to wear.
    Thank you so much.
    Wishing you the very best this New Year!
    Linda December 29, 2010 at 1:53pm Reply

  • Victoria: Linda, I did the same thing when I returned from India–I started cooking, exploring various spicy flavors and trying new vegetables. It was a continuation of my journey. There are plenty of Indian stores in both NY and NJ (Edison NJ has a large Indian community,) so it is easy to find many ingredients. I missed the sun and the olfactory kaleidoscope of India so much.

    The fragrance that makes me think of India… I have several that capture some parts of it: Anya’s Garden Temple (oud, incense, orange–very bright), Amouage Memoir Woman (not exactly for the faint of heart,) Shalimar (a romantic fantasy of India that does not exist in reality, but still lovely,) even the new Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady captures some of the boldness of Indian roses, incense, patchouli and woods.

    For more traditional attars, I would recommend exploring the Arabian Oud range (I got my sample pack from the Perfume Court). They have some fragrances that smell like traditional Indian blends.

    Happy 2011 to you too! December 29, 2010 at 2:06pm Reply

  • Yelena: I am overwhelmed by all of the tastes, scents, faces, places and palettes that you capture. This article literally made my pulse quicken with the imagery rushing forth in so much colorful glory. It’s like a magic carpet ride with catering! December 29, 2010 at 4:19pm Reply

  • Margi Macdonald: What a great read; I have to do it again! December 29, 2010 at 4:48pm Reply

  • Victoria: Lena, thank you for your kind words, it all means very much to me. Above all, I am glad that you could share in some of these adventures! December 29, 2010 at 8:58pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Margi! 🙂 December 29, 2010 at 8:58pm Reply

  • Wildpidg: Beautiful, richfull & engrossing article; it made me really want now to experience New York at a new level, a new approach that is to say i am less fearfull….
    Thank you it is a very nice New Year intro 🙂 December 29, 2010 at 10:10pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you very much! New York has so many interesting places to discover that I feel overwhelmed sometimes. Next year, I plan to devote even more time to exploring it. Queens areas were very new to me!
    Happy New Year! I hope that 2011 will be a great one for all of us! December 30, 2010 at 1:24am Reply

  • Olga Bodnar Talyn: Victoria,
    It is with joy that I found your site. Your words ring so true to my own experience of the world through scent and sensory perception. I fell in love with scent from an early age, rose gardens and magnolia, cheap little bottles of perfume from Woolworths, wild roses on the beach, reading ballet magazines that described the different scents balanchine choice for his prima ballerinas,incense and flowers in church on to teen age and my twenties with Arden’s blue grass,Tuvache’s Jungle Gardenia,Vivara, Kiku, Ecusson, Casague, Shocking,Crepe de Chine, Sortilege, Caleche,Joy, etc,etc,etc. My life in New York was one that mirrored yours in terms of my sensory perception and exploration of neighborhoods.I spent 27 years in the theatre and my memories are all connected to the scent of make up, costumes and the different choices of my caste mates. Today I still explore. I shop in Asian markets with their wonderful exotic offerings. I always look for new olfactory discoveries though i could not live without Fracas,Mitsouko,Diorissimo,Quadrille and L’Artisian’s Tuberuse. You are a joy to read and it warms my soul to know that you are among us.
    Olga December 30, 2010 at 7:17pm Reply

  • Victoria: Olga, thank you for your kind words! We all inspire each other, and this is the best part!
    How nice that you mention Balanchine and the perfumes he used to select for his dancers. When I was a student at the choreography institute (studying classical ballet,) I remember hearing these stories too. Back then we hardly were able to access most of the French and American fragrances in Ukraine, and the whole idea seemed fascinating. I recall that Suzanne Farrell wore Diorissimo. Do you remember what others wore? December 31, 2010 at 12:02am Reply

  • dodie: WOW, excellent write-up, I was impressed because your way of writing is different and as far as I been looking for these days, you definitely pass the criteria and my standard for qualification. December 31, 2010 at 2:46pm Reply

  • Victoria: Dodie, thank you for your nice words. December 31, 2010 at 4:44pm Reply

  • Odette Toilette: This is a gorgeous post – thanks for sharing. I think for me, the overwhelming scent memory I have from 2010 travels came from a trip to Japan in August, when the country was gripped in the biggest heatwave since the 1940s. It was Yuzus that acted as my olfactory air-conditioning – being given a glass of fizzy water into which you could stir in a spoon of yuzu jam was a seriously welcome relief. That sparkling scent of tangerine and sharp lemon is a magical memory for me.

    Was in Mumbai last year and never discovered edible moss! – hmm going to try and get hold of some, somehow… January 3, 2011 at 8:36am Reply

  • Victoria: Odette, thank you for sharing your memory. The way you've described it, I could just envision it all–the heat, the freshness of citrus, the sense of relief it aroma brought… I dream of visiting Japan, especially since I spent my college years studying Japanese.
    The edible moss is called dagad phool (or fool, depending on transliteration,) and it looks like a mix of white moss and leafy lichen (black on top and silvery on the bottom.) I will try to take a photo. It is used in the Persian Gulf too, and I encountered it in Oman and Bahrain. In other parts of India, they will give you star anise if you ask for dagad phool, but in Mumbai, it is moss. Any spice market would have it. While you are at it, try to get some nagkesar, cassia buds, which taste delightfully of cinnamon, pepper and bay leaf. January 3, 2011 at 10:51am Reply

  • Sonomascent.wordpress.com: Congratulations on your Fifi award nomination for this piece (as well as your December 20, 2010 Spicy Gourmand Fragrances: Delicious Seduction)! I loved this beautiful post. Many of us accumulate scent memories all year but don’t take the time to organize our thoughts and put them on paper. It’s fun to read about your worldwide travels on your blog — thanks for taking us along. 🙂 April 6, 2011 at 11:09am Reply

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