“Sita’s senses became familiar with secrets of spices. She learned how Brahma becomes Brahman, seeker and transmitter of wisdom at the same time. This very thought made her smile,” states a folklore on Sita’s kitchen.
I understand that it’s a humongous job to separate smell from taste, especially when one talks about the world of spices. While cooking with lots of flavours, a smart cook has the ability to layer out every sensual influence to achieve your chemistry with food.
As a vegetarian, I moved away from meat and fish in my life. But I must admit I was tempted by some smells. Our skyline in the village used to be filled with the irresistible aroma of fried fish during lunchtimes, a somewhat inexplicable smell that always made me feel curious about its taste.
Illustrious cooks have terrific knacks to judge quality and sometimes by just sniffing at the vapours coming out from the food, they could measure its perfection. It’s incredible as to how they apply that skill even in large scale cooking to enhance and compliment the moods of hungry people.
Let me take you through Sita, the Ramayana story written by Devdutt Pattanaik. During the war, Ravan’s soldiers came back tired and hungry. They had to be fed and nourished. Smell of cooked meat, fish and vegetables travelled out of Lanka’s busy kitchens and flew across the burning towers amidst riots. Eventually, the aromas surrounded the Ashoka grove where Sita rested. Instantly, she realised the disproportions of spices and uninspiring flavours from the smell. She gave the royal kitchen her suggestions and ways to improve quality with her own recipes.
Being a skilled cook, Sita kept giving her ideas to the Lankan cooks and a new miraculous aroma spread across the empire. What happened was magical. Soldiers got intensely attracted to the smell and taste of food. They were much happier to eat, rest and spend time with their families, and never wanted to go back to fight again. Hearing the story and noticing the lethargy in his men, Ravan instructed to close Lanka’s kitchen. Thus hunger brought back anger and instinct to fight.
The power of food aroma still entices people just like in the past. I remember an Indian restaurant next to a pub in London where the smell of food cooked in tandoor used to attract the crowd like a magnet, and people thronged the place after happy hour drinking!
Modern kitchens, with its collection of international ingredients, have taken food fascination to new heights. However, people do reach out to foods based on a sensual appeal or sometimes a familiarity from a previous experience. Its vital for every dish to have a vibrant, inviting aroma hence it will add more taste in a diner’s imagination.
This art is generally possible when we cook with fresh herbs and spices, unlike today, when most of the ingredients come out of refrigerators or processed elsewhere to make the job easier and faster. Then some clever chefs use a fresh garnish—like generous amount of chopped coriander, tomatoes or curry leaves—to make the dish look and smell fresh.
A traditional cook once said, “Every ingredient is like your body particle. They feel, act and smell different. You have to touch each separately to bring harmony for the whole, or else the taste will finish instantly.”
The author is a London-based restaurateur who owns the Rasa chain of restaurants