That curry smell in outer space

I received an nice email from a childhood friend this morning. He said:

I was thinking of your mother yesterday. It was International Women’s Day, and an Indian colleague was telling a story about her mom’s traditional role in the household as non-partner, non-decision-maker, etc, who sat on the floor while the men sat in chairs. I thought of your apartment, which always smelled like tasty traditional Indian food. But I also knew your mom as a successful professional and strong head of household. It just got me thinking and reminiscing, and was a nice daydream to have.

In an odd way, what stuck out to me was his mention of smells. We grew up in the same apartment building, and played together a fair amount as young kids. So if he says that our apartment had pleasant aromas associated with cooking, I believe him.

Still, despite the strong association between smell and memory, for the life of me, I can’t remember what foods my friends’ apartments smelled like at all. I recall plenty of other aromas from my childhood, many of which are about food, but none of them are about residences smelling like the foods people ate there. Go figure.

It’s a conversation we’ve had here often. We’ve talked about that curry smell and how meat smells create vegetarian self-segregation. It repeats elsewhere too. One of our (non-desi) readers remarked, on her own blog, that she was puzzled as to where the persistent pleasant smell of Indian food was coming from, only to realize that it was her.

Still, a story from a week ago will, I think, elevate this debate. Sunita Williams, the hadesi astronaut, has desi food in her “bonus container”:

Williams … has several Indian dishes in her bonus container, including Punjabi kadhi with pakora – vegetable fritters topped with yogurt and curry – and mutter paneer, a curry dish. The dishes are packaged to have a long shelf life in space. [Link]

Does this presage that curry smell in outer space? Honestly, I don’t think her fellow astronauts will care either what she or the cabin smells like, as long as she doesn’t repeat her most recent food accident which involved wasabi wafting weightlessly:

The spicy greenish condiment was squirted out of a tube while astronaut Sunita Williams was trying to make a pretend sushi meal with bag-packaged salmon… Since everything is weightless, spilled food is no ordinary clean-up challenge… “We finally got the wasabi smell out after it was flying around everywhere,” Williams told her mother this week … “We cleaned it up off the walls a little bit…” [Link]

After all, hopefully that curry smell is far more appealing than that wasabi smell, if only because little spicy globules might be dangerous …

39 thoughts on “That curry smell in outer space

  1. “Houston, we have a problem. It appears there are pakoras flying all around the cabin.”

    A second later….

    “Ouch, my head!”

  2. Funny–I’m very sensitive to and enjoy other cuisine smells too. The herby olivey cheesy smell of an Italian-American greasy sppon. The gingery greens mell of Chinese cooking. The buttery smell of English baking. Probably one of my favorite food smells, so rarely felt these days, is the very backyard American smell of a huge patch of green tomato vines. When I was in the Sierras for a month, the first thing I wanted when I got back was to eat fresh hot basmati rice topped with droplets of ghee. There’s nothign quite like the smell of opening a new bag of basmati.

    Does anyone know the suitcase smell of India? When I was little and my mother would get back from India, she would open up her suitcase and it would have this sharp, woody smell. Not food at all. It was always so thrilling, I associated it with the presents she brought back.In my mind it became the smell of India. And in India I smell it too–this last time I walked into the airport of Hyderbad and wham, it hit me like a blast–I actually cried out, “Oh, we are here! That smell!” It’s an indoor smell, like cane or Indian paper maybe, and marble dust, and certain kinds of cloth. Sometimes you catch a whiff of it in Cost Plus.

  3. To clarify, I agree that food smells are really important. For some reason, I just don’t associate them with residences though, I associate them with restaurants or street stalls or suitcases or the foods themselves. Still, I don’t want to interrupt anybody’s reminiscences … ;)

  4. Sunita Williams is not half desi, she’s full desi.

    Does anyone know the suitcase smell of India? When I was little and my mother would get back from India, she would open up her suitcase and it would have this sharp, woody smell. Not food at all. It was always so thrilling, I associated it with the presents she brought back.In my mind it became the smell of India. And in India I smell it too–this last time I walked into the airport of Hyderbad and wham, it hit me like a blast–I actually cried out, “Oh, we are here! That smell!”

    Can relate to that 100%. India has a unique smell that you get hit with right at the airport. It’s actually kind of nice in its way. Most Asian and African countries have some version of that smell, whereas the West (and Japan) decidedly do not.

    In Brooklyn there is a hospital called LICH, with housing for all the medical residents (who are predominantly desi, both Indian and Pakistani). The vast majority of that building consisted of desis and their spouses and kids. Some of my friends were LICH residents who lived there too, which is why I spent some time there hanging out. Anyway, everyday around 5-6 pm, when it seemed like EVERY apartment in there decided to start the evening cooking, the smell of onions, garlic, ginger, and various masalas would waft out from the building…a WALL OF SMELL. I don’t know how the non-desis managed to survive.

  5. Amitabh, according to her, she’s a hadesi:

    “My father is Hindu so he’s vegetarian. My mother, who is [an] American of Yugoslavian descent, would cook two different meals each day — one Indian and one meat and potatoes — so I got to eat a little bit of both and a good variety.” [Link]
  6. Yeah, I remember that “suitcase smell”.. It is sort of something like cloth, types of wood (sandalwood i think ?), like old books, like leather..

    But another great smell from India is incencse that we use when we pray !

    Unfortunately there are also many bad smells in india, smell of sewage in streets, smell of garbage in streets, smell of cows and cow dung everywhere.. Smell of disgusting restrooms in India. Also when it rains in India it is especially bad because the rain makes all the garbage wet and as it dries the smell is too much.

    And there is a lot of air pollution from factories in India too giving off weird chemical smells.

  7. Nothing can be worse than the ambient smell of In-n-Out. Its almost like it is sprayed within a mile radius.

  8. Ennis,

    Love the choice of madelaines for the photo.

    I fell in love with the Bella Easo little madelaines in Madrid, and I still remember the twelve-hour train ride to Lisbon for a long weekend with friends, all grad students on a tight budget, all we brought to eat were clementines, madalenas and water…

  9. And Ennis, if it’s having to do with outer space, why isn’t Abhi posting about it?

    Or is it that the heavens so vast that you are sharing them between you as bloggable material?

  10. Not to add a “downer note” to this discussion, but some years ago I went to look at a house for rent, with converted garage as residence for the owners who would be in there during the Long Island summer months, but in Florida during the winter. Well, when two guys show up to look at accomodations, I guess the situation is fairly obvious – and we weren’t grad students by any stretch of the imagination.

    So, imagine my shock when the woman told us that she’d rather have two gay guys live there than the Indian family who had inspected the premises just before we did. When I asked “why,” her answer was that she couldn’t bear the smell of Indian cooking. I looked her in the eye, and told her that if that was her attitude, I was certain that she would find fault with us for something or other. And that if the rental was not generating a lot of interest at that time, she deserved whatever came her way.

    In a university community there is a heck of a lot of diversity. It was a pleasure to drive past that house many weeks later and see little brown kids playing in the front yard.

  11. the smell of mothballs always remind me of india…it makes me think of opening my grandparents’ godridges.

    there are sounds that resonate with me as well, like a pressure cooker whistling or tadka splattering on the stove.

  12. Yeah, I remember that “suitcase smell”.. It is sort of something like cloth, types of wood (sandalwood i think ?), like old books, like leather..

    I know that sweet, sharp, dry, composite smell…sandalwood, yes.

    Sadaiyappan, you have listed many bad smells, but I’ve got one more for you, and it’s a semi-delicate suitcase smell: dried old sweat of darzi, which comes abroad on clothes that went straight from the tailor into the suitcase without a detour to the dhobi or dry cleaner.

    Here are some more good desi smells– tuberoses mixed with red roses, dhuno smoke on a winter evening, wet greenery after a monsoon rain, loochis/pooris frying, sun-dried sheets, early morning mist mixed with fresh horse sweat, frangipani, Himalayan/pahari bakeries…and here are some scary Desi smells — the air inside Mughal tombs in Delhi, the wafts from rubbing alcohol at aged doctor’s offices, leak from a crematorium…

  13. I wonder if anyone knows that, along with curries, Vighna-vinashak Ganesha’s murti also went to outer space this time.

  14. I used to love Indian curry smells, but because of a certain incident when I was younger, I now cringe when I smell Indian curry. We used to live in apartments with windows closed mostly because of harsh Canadian winters. I had never realized that our apartment and other things in it smelled like curry when my mother’s boss at the daycare she used to work at threw her jacket out of the daycare because it smelled too much of curry. You can imagine how difficult it was for my mom to come home later wearing a jacket that had been in -30C and in snow, all day…. Since then I have this odd reaction to Indian curry smells, which my ex non-desi boyfriend found strange because he loved it!

  15. Awesome post Ennis.

    I was unpacking my bag from travels to Kenya recently and spent about two hours in complete olfactory nirvana. I brought back a lot of ebony wood curios and smelling them made me feel like I was still at home.

    Smell is a very strong way of remembering something or someone. I associate all yardley talcum powder with my granny and when I get a whiff of it, I feel oddly comforted.

    If you live in an apartment complex, you inadvertently end up associating cooking smells with particular ethnicities. Our next door neighbors right now are mexican and on most evenings, we get to smell enchilada sauce or carne asada. We had vietnamese neighbors at one point and we could tell when they were having chicekn pho for dinner. I’m sure that they could and can still tell when I am having dhosa or aloo parathas. I think it’s quite cool. :)

  16. Oh, I know that suitcase smell! It’s almost as if you packed a bit of that warmer, humid weather into the suitcase.

    I love stepping out of the plane in India and inhaling that smell in the air. It’s so warm and welcoming that it immediately makes me smile! I think there’s a smell associated with US airports too… a cooler, cleaner smell (um… think Neutrogena, not Oil of Olay) that makes me feel… purposeful and independant!

    In both cases, I associate the airport smell with the sound of the announcer asking you not to leave your bags lying aorund. The accent differs with the smell.

  17. I think there’s a smell associated with US airports too… a cooler, cleaner smell (um… think Neutrogena, not Oil of Olay) that makes me feel… purposeful and independant!

    Yes, green angel. I hear you on that! Its almost lysolish..I think it’s the disinfectant that they use.

  18. Speaking of desi smells, one that I miss most in the US is the really nice smell one gets immediately after rain preceded by a dry spell in India. In Atlanta it rains quite a bit and I have not experienced that smell here, nor in other parts like Oregon, California or Minnesota where I have seen rain. I guess it’s got something to do with the dust in India and maybe the microorganisms in the air(??)

  19. Wow Saheli,

    That was really good writing there, especially the suitcase smell. I always called it India smell. Like,

    Wood, water, smelling Fresh and fine Like grandmothers In white starched sari Or the store Rice packed in Old wavy books Holes in the pages, Bees, And my cousin Climbing the walls Bombay summer Dust floating Sun shines through Making everything Golden… ?

    Now, my new smell addiction: Baby

  20. Two choices to define kadhi:

    (a) Yogurt and curry (b) A layered soup made with buttermilk and chickpea flour, with a tinge of spice and ginger/garlic. (Definitely has a fragrance-like top,middle and base note structure!)

    Perhaps the precise etymology of curry is also based on ‘kadhi’ – first time my vocabularies juxtaposed the two words together. After a quick check on the OED, and as usual it’s at odds with (and vehemently rebukes) my English theories, it only claims a Tamil and Kannada root as the South Asian origins. (Note to self: coalesce vocabularies and identities asap)

  21. Villages and farms in India also have an evocative smell…something related to cows and hay I think, as well as the ‘fragrance of the earth’. Probably dung too.

  22. It was International Women’s Day, and an Indian colleague was telling a story about her mom’s traditional role in the household as non-partner, non-decision-maker, etc, who sat on the floor while the men sat in chairs.

    That’s horrible (women sitting on the floor while men sit in chairs). What region of India has that practice?

  23. Cdr. Lynn Williams shouldn’t be taking all that rich and heavy food into space. Imagine the discomfort in poorly ventilated spaces and without the option of exercising to burn off all those calories. Indian food is meant ot be cooked and eaten in the open. And Saheli, better than basmati and ghee is Gobinda Bhog bhaat with ghee, and then some begun phora, aaloo shedda, maangsher jhol.

  24. Amitabh on March 10, 2007 04:11 PM • Direct link Villages and farms in India also have an evocative smell…something related to cows and hay I think, as well as the ‘fragrance of the earth’. Probably dung too.

    Having lived and experienced the rural life in interiors of Andhra,when we talk about India the most unforgettable smell for me is in the monsoon season -the fragrance of the earth when the rain is pouring.When you add hot Mirchi Bajji to that in the middle of a feild hut…ohh!!

    Even the smell of ploughed feilds mixed with cow dung and oranic paddy in the rains has a differenet eartly smell to it.

    There is a novel called “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” by vikran chandra.(nothing to do with the smells though).

  25. khadi/baath, a gujarati tradition..now you make me hungry…and have defined my menu for tonight! thansk.:

    (b) A layered soup made with buttermilk and chickpea flour, with a tinge of spice and ginger/garlic. (Definitely has a fragrance-like top,middle and base note structure!)
  26. Reminds me of a conversation with a dumb ass co-worker:

    DAC: Do you eat tuna? Me: No DAC: Do you eat a lot of tofu? Me: No, I’m Indian, my vegetarian diet isn’t based on that. DAC: Oh, do you eat a lot of curry? Me: I don’t know what that means. DAC: I can’t handle it, I went to Indian row once and I got so sick! Me: But what was it? DAC: Food that had curry in it. Me: What is it though? DAC: It contained that spice, you know, curry!

  27. Who is the dumb ass??

    DAC: Do you eat tuna? Me: No DAC: Do you eat a lot of tofu? Me: No, I’m Indian, my vegetarian diet isn’t based on that.

    Latest surveys show around 70-80% Indians are non-vegetarian..

  28. My mother’s kitchen smells of coriander, mint, and something thicker. Leave the windows open all you like; it will persist. The real estate agent says paint the walls white and broaden its appeal to help it sell. She does not remark on the kitchen, whose smell is what keeps them away– that smell makes me want to buy the house myself.

  29. Re: #33 — I think the point was that Indian veg diets are not tofu-based, not that Indian diets are vegetarian.

    Favorite India smell: the jasmine wafting off of the little strands pinned to girls’ hair.

  30. And Ennis, if it’s having to do with outer space, why isn’t Abhi posting about it? Or is it that the heavens so vast that you are sharing them between you as bloggable material?

    We traded. I told him he could have the next two turban posts if he gave me this one ;)

    In any case, I am the blogger without a name, without a face, without a clue and without a portfolio. I blog without borders! I can’t find any pattern in the subjects I’ve blogged about, other than I’ve done a few more of the religion posts (Sikh or non-Sikh) than the others.

  31. Does anyone know the suitcase smell of India? When I was little and my mother would get back from India, she would open up her suitcase and it would have this sharp, woody smell. Not food at all. It was always so thrilling, I associated it with the presents she brought back.In my mind it became the smell of India. And in India I smell it too–this last time I walked into the airport of Hyderbad and wham, it hit me like a blast–I actually cried out, “Oh, we are here! That smell!” It’s an indoor smell, like cane or Indian paper maybe, and marble dust, and certain kinds of cloth. Sometimes you catch a whiff of it in Cost Plus.

    YES. YES. always YES.

  32. Maybe it’s because I’m only in Madras on family vacations, when I have the time to sit still and take notice of such things, but there is no more beautiful smell than the smell of the ground (“kali mannu”-like) in the middle of a serious down-pour. Perfection! It almost makes me want to go out there and dance in it. Oh wait, that only happens in the movies.

  33. Hmm…smells from local dhobi -misty smell of burnt charcoal and wood doused by water, lingering wisps of smoke that hang in the winter air…the halwais at the chauraha with big woks of boiling milk and crisp jalebis – not something to be gulped down on the way to work but savored in a relaxed verandah bathed in morning sun!