Travel: 81 posts

Searching for scents and sensory traditions around the world.

Pandan: the Perfume of Penang

Let me start the new year with a journey and take you to George Town. Located on the Malaysian island of Penang, the city was established in the 18th century by the British East India Company. The population of George Town is diverse, a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian communities, each contributing its own traditions to Penang’s cosmopolitan blend. One of the most distinctive layers is formed by the Peranakans. The descendants of the Chinese who arrived starting from the 15th century and intermarried with the locals, the Peranakans blend Chinese, Malay and European customs. Their clothing, art and music are distinctive, but even more striking is their cuisine: Peranakan, or Nyonya, food is one of George Town’s main attractions.

I traveled around Malaysia, exploring its scented and culinary traditions, but I kept returning to Penang. It drew me with its diversity, its history, and above all, its food. Penang’s food and scents are the topics of my recent FT column, Pandan: the Perfume of Penang. I explore the most characteristic of all scents in Peranakan cuisine, pandan.

Although the foods I tried in Penang were varied – I’ve written previously about the sheer variety of specialities on offer across its different neighbourhoods – one leitmotif during my explorations was the scent of pandan leaves. The Peranakans mix shredded pandan with rose petals, jasmine and perfume oil to create a home fragrance, but most often, the leaves of this tropical plant are used in their cuisine. Although pandan tends to be described as the vanilla of Asia for its ubiquity in desserts, its fragrance isn’t sweet. When raw, pandan smells green and nutty, but when cooked, it acquires the voluptuous, toasted perfume of basmati rice. To continue reading, please click here.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Amina Ali : The Cake Wizard of Lahore

This story is part of my Pakistan travel diaries, describing my discoveries and encounters with inspiring individuals I met during my trip.

Amina Ali is a Renaissance woman. An artist and the CEO of Lahore Children’s Center, she’s also the mastermind behind Delish, a patisserie specializing in elegant, creative cakes. When I first met her, I was so impressed by her range of talents that I had difficulty conceiving how a single person could juggle so many responsibilities. Yet, after spending more time with Amina and exploring Lahore together, I grew to realize that she is very much the denizen of her city, energetic, vibrant and multifaceted.

I first came across Delish through the stories of friends who visited Lahore. “Amina’s cakes are works of art,” said an acquaintance who often travels to this ancient city in the heart of Pakistan’s Punjab province for the Literary Festival. “What’s more, the taste is heavenly,” she added. I grew intrigued when I learned that Amina started her business at the back of her house, teaching herself the art of pastry and cake decor. Whatever I knew about Lahore suggested that such an endeavor wouldn’t be for a fainthearted person.

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Lahore and Roses

I spent the past three weeks in Pakistan. I started my trip in Karachi and traveled along the Indus before crossing into Punjab and continuing to Islamabad, and finally, Lahore. I had many reasons that drove me to undertake the journey– an interest in ancient history and my personal need to understand the modern era, a desire to see places I’ve read about and to discover a country that’s often misunderstood and talked about in geopolitical terms. Above all, I wanted to see Lahore.

Lahore Lahore hai, say the locals. Lahore is Lahore. There is no other city like it, they add. I agree. It’s the place where Mughal empresses rest in the rose gardens and the new train lines edge Shah Jahan’s palaces. It’s the place where one can get lost in the old city and find oneself in a quiet courtyard full of fluttering dove wings and silvery streamers. It’s the place where ancient shrines are drowning in the clutter of shops and hawker stalls, and where the marble steps of Badshahi Mosque are so polished that they reflect the moonlight. Lahore is Lahore.

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Paris Autumn Walks : The Basilica of Saint Denis

If I made a map of my favorite walks in Paris, the routes would invariably lead to an old church, a cemetery, a café or a market. They would circumvent the glamorous Paris of the tourist brochures and explore the places where the ancient and the modern city coexist, where the mysteries linger, and where one can satisfy one’s hunger, literal and figurative. Paris is often associated with spring, romance and blossoming, but my Paris is autumn, fallen leaves and the light streaming through the stained glass windows.

The Basilica of Saint Denis, Basilique royale de Saint-Denis, is one of those large French Gothic churches that to a non-expert eye are hard to tell apart. Even the fact that it has only one tower instead of the usual two can get lost as one contemplates its imposing size. Yet, the space inside the basilica is so elegant with its slender windows, graceful columns and candlelight filled enfilades that I’d take a stroll here over visiting Notre-Dame. It’s worth a metro ride to Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris that manages to be both bland and seedy. My Paris explorations often end up here.

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Scents That Satisfy Wanderlust

Some scents have the flying carpet effect on me. I only need to put a few drops on my skin and I feel that I’m in another place. It might be a place that I visited, but most of the time it’s about a fantasy. In my new FT column, Scents with A Sense of Place, I explore how fragrances can transport us out of our usual routine and take us on a journey. I use the example of several favorite fragrance, including my recent coup de coeur, Chanel Paris-Deauville.

The art of perfumery is about creating illusions. When we explore scents, it’s best to forget about the brand, bottle shape and perfume name, and focus on what the aromas tell us. For one person, Etat Libre d’Orange Jasmin et Cigarette is a smoky jazz club, while for another it’s an Indian temple filled with incense smoke and flower garlands. The only thing that matters is whether a perfume creates a vision one wants to experience again and again. To continue reading, please click here.

What about you? What perfume do you reach for when you wish to satisfy your wanderlust?

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