Travel: 105 posts

Searching for scents and sensory traditions around the world.

Your Personal Museum of Scents

Last year, I received an email from one of my readers asking me an interesting question–if I could create my personal museum of scents, what would it include? She mentioned a NYT column by Tejal Rao, a restaurant critic in Los Angeles, in which she described smells that were meaningful to her. I immediately thought that Bois de Jasmin in its entirety was indeed my personal smell museum. If I were to limit it to certain themes, then I would mentioned two articles that I have already written, Scent of Kyiv, about the city where I was born, and Where Jasmine Forest Blooms, which describes my grandmother’s garden in Poltava, a place that inspired this page.

Yet, as I reflected further, especially on the last decade of my life, I realized that my personal scent museum at this point encompasses much more than I have previously noted. So, I decided to put down a list of scents that move me, evoke memories or inspire me.

Libraries

“Paradise is a library, not a garden,” Jorge Luis Borges said. Or could it be both? Either way, the scent of books and the scent of libraries is one of the most essential and evocative smells for me.

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Stained Glass and Light : Postcard from Brussels

Among the hidden jewels of Brussels is a tiny Art Deco church called Église du Divin Sauveur. Located in the commune of Schaerbeek, it is decorated with the striking stained glass windows. On the outside it looks plain, but as is the case for most churches in this part of Europe, stepping inside reveals the true magic. As the early morning light streams in, the church is filled with an undulating rainbow of colors that makes the space seem bigger than it is. I walk through a river of sapphire blue and immerse myself into crimson and emerald. 

I’ve seen many stained glass window-adorned churches and mosques, but every new one is a special delight. The play of light never gets old. Every time it’s a thrill, awakening a childhood memory of playing with a kaleidoscope and waiting for the one special–the favorite, the unique–arrangement to fall into a place. A turn of the tube, the sound of glass fragments falling into  place, a new pattern.

These days such calm moments are rare, so I savor and seek them out even more. I especially enjoy when they happen when I least expect them. If I can capture with one sentence the learnings of this year, it would be–take care of yourself. Go for walks, pursue hobbies, enjoy your most extravagant perfumes, daydream, hope, and remember that every moment holds the promise of a wonder.

What takes you to your place of serenity? 

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Dungan Spice Blend and Summer Salad : From Bishkek Via Brussels

Last weekend I had a cooking class with Zulfiya Ma Tian Yu of Dungan Food. Zulfiya lives in Bishkek, Kyrgystan, but we managed to overcome the Bishkek-Brussels distance by a combination of video and WhatsApp. Thanks to  modern technology, I’ve learned the basics of this ancient cuisine. The Dungans are a community of Muslims of Arab-Chinese descent living in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Originating from Western China, where the Dungans are known as Hui, this community has a distinctive identity, amalgamating various cultural influences. Its cuisine is likewise diverse, vibrant–and different from the cuisines of their immediate neighbors.

Imagine the sophisticated seasonings of Persian cuisine, intricate Chinese techniques and the robust Central Asian palette–and you get an idea of what Dungan food is like. There are noodle dishes served with an array of dozens of salads and sauces, dumplings filled with lamb and pumpkin, and paper-thin crepes for wrapping stir-fries of garlic chives and pepper. Each meal is served with plenty of vegetables, and everything is cooked just enough to enhance the natural flavors.

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Rubbish to Gems : A Tale of Javanese Tea Wedang Uwuh

While driving around the Indonesian countryside, especially in Sulawesi and Java, you see sheets of tarp spread along the side of the road with cloves or scrolls of cassia drying in the hot sun. The archipelago produces most of the world’s nutmeg and clove, spices over which wars were fought and nations colonized. Most of the produce drying on the plastic sheets is intended for export; the higher the quality the better the price farmers would fetch. Yet, no part of a spice tree is wasted, be it cassia, nutmeg or clove. Javanese tea, wedang uwuh, is an example of this philosophy.

Uwuh means rubbish in Javanese, and the tea uses all of the refuse from the spice production–nutmeg leaves, clove branches, cassia foliage and stems. (Another theory is that the tea is so called because the bits and ends floating in the liquid look like garbage.) Either way, garbage it is not, and one legend credits the Raja of Mataram with the discovery of wedang uwuh.

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Contemplating a Peony : 5 Perfumes for the Peony Viewing

Cherry blossoms may be the flowers most strongly associated with Japan, but the peony is another beloved bloom. If you visit Tokyo in late spring, you can spend your days wandering the most beautiful peony gardens. The most striking peonies are the ones called botan in Japanese, or tree peony. They indeed appear as if they’re growing on trees, and their flowers are much larger than the more familiar stem peonies known as shakuyaku. Their colors, textures and, of course, scents vary dramatically.

So I’ve selected several fragrances that use peony in different ways, ranging from fresh and light to dark and warm. I also would like to share several favorite spots in Tokyo where peonies are displayed in all of their splendor. While going there is not possible for most of us, we can still admire the photos on line and dream up our perfect peony perfume.

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