spices: 20 posts

Spices and Perfumes

Nothing about my masala dabba, an Indian-style spice box, looks exotic. It’s a round tin, with a double lid and several compartments, that after being moved across continents has enough dents and scratches to form a geography of its own. But it’s what’s inside that counts, and the moment the slightly battered lid is pushed ajar it becomes obvious why the roots of the words “spice” and “special” are intertwined–the perfume of coriander, nutmeg, cardamom, fennel and pepper that rushes forth is so rich and heady that it alone is enough to dispel gloom on a cold winter day.

Among the aromatics inside my spice box, cardamom has a place of honor. It’s a curious spice, because unlike darker, heavier favorites like black pepper, cumin or allspice, cardamom combines the freshness of lemon peel with a peppery and metallic bite. I often crush a few green pods to flavor a cup of coffee, a batch of gingerbread or a Persian style lamb stew. Another way I enjoy cardamom is via Jo Malone Mimosa & Cardamom, a fragrance blending soft mimosa with the citrusy spice.

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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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On the Spice Route

I spent much of last year traveling and researching the way spices and other aromatics are grown. My pursuit took me to the clove gardens in Indonesia, cumin fields in India, and the cassia cinnamon groves in Vietnam. The word ‘spice’ contains the same root as the word ’special,’ and I wanted to discover how these unique fragrant plants are transformed into essences and used in perfumery.

The journey was full of revelations. I learned, for instance, that processing clove essence involves not the buds of the tree, the familiar cloves of mulled wine and gingerbread, but rather the stems and leaves. All parts of the clove tree contain essential oil with varying scent profiles. The leaves release sweet-smelling essence, but the one derived from the stems has a smoky, woody accent.

Inspired by these travels, I sought up spice dominated perfumes and in my recent FT magazine article, Spice-Laced Scents, I share a few favorites.

In Hermès Epice Marine (£185 for 100ml EDT), toasted cumin adds a savoury twist to the earthy vetiver and citrus cologne. The lemony cardamom (another favourite Indian spice) adds a shimmering top note, while the mellow cedarwood serves as a polished backdrop. All the while, the dark note of cumin glows seductively. To continue reading, please click here.

What are your favorite spiced fragrances?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin, nutmeg with mace

5 Things That Inspire Me

When I work on any long-term project, my office looks as if a tornado went through it. Since I prefer to work at a low table sitting on a cushion, my legs folded in the lotus position, I use the floor around me as my canvas. Books, research materials, and reference volumes cover it in random looking piles and mixed among them are items I find inspiring. Of course, the chaos is not entirely random, and I can tell you where I have my Japanese-English dictionary, Philip Kraft’s guide to fragrance chemistry or a volume of Persian poetry, without having to get up from my table. (The table, by the way, was a $10 acquisition from a Turkish shop, intended for making phyllo pastry.)

Casting a quick glance at the items that surround me today, I realized that they are much more than the materials I use for my writing, but rather the things that inspire me, the things that give me pleasure simply by looking at or touching them. I’m sure everyone can make such an inspiration collage–and I’m sure that for every person it would be different, but I wanted to share mine with you.

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