I haven’t mentioned this here before, but I would describe myself as an enthusiastic, if not serious, consumer of fragrances. Scents have been important to me all my life, really, from the very first moment I sneaked in a few dabs of my mother’s Jean Nate After Bath Splash (and got spanked for it.) If I had more means, I would definitely be more of a collector, but because I don’t, I wait until I use a couple of bottles up before I purchase another one. I can now state confidently that I make these additions to my fragrance wardrobe after much deliberation and research. I keep what I like and rotate them in accordance with the season. Of course, I’ve made some mistakes (a plummy floral scent from Berlin and a powdery Penhaligon’s come to mind).
When I was young, I was tied to the idea of having a signature fragrance. I used one smell, no matter what the occasion, no matter what the weather. My first perfume was “Eau Dynamisante” from Clarins, because I was fascinated by all the mysterious unguents at the Clarins counter and imagined myself as an older woman using all of them in whatever way they were supposed to be used. The perfume came in a deep red bottle with white lettering that I displayed proudly on my dresser at boarding school, and the juice inside smelled fresh and green, just like the name seemed to promise.
My friend at the time started wearing the same scent that I did and that put me off of it; I felt like it was the perfume equivalent of ordering the same thing at a restaurant, which is a personal pet peeve of mine (how can you share?)
I started wearing Guerlain’s Pamplelune from its Aqua Allegoria collection, an attempt by the old house to appeal to a younger set turned off by grand orientals like Mitsouko and, God forgive me, Jicky, which I wanted to like but which Karen told me smelled like “old man’s butt”. Pamplelune, on the other hand, suited me perfectly: still fresh, sweet and citrusy, with a little undertow of vanilla. On me, it smelled more like cocktail than teenage girl. I wore it for years, and even getting a whiff of the scent today vividly brings back to me my years in Paris, when I lived on the fifth floor off of Boulevard Saint Germain and only two people fit in the elevator at a time.
It was only when I hit my 40s when I started to think of perfume as a “wardrobe”, something to change with your feelings or with the temperature at the time. As my friend Noy used to say, “Keeping the same scent on everyday is like keeping on the same pair of underwear.” I wanted to change my underwear.
Today I have a modest collection and a lot more little samples that I bring with me when I travel (not so much anymore). It looks like this:
Every scent on the shelf has some purpose depending on what day or event it is. Some, like the Dolce Vita by Dior, I’ve only started wearing again because I was sickened by its bright sweet woody scent, post-pregnancy. Some, like the Byredo Mojave Ghost, I only wear when I have a formal event (so I have not worn that one for a while). The weather got so temperate a few months ago that I was even able to sneak in a few nights of the Guerlain Vol de Nuit, a scent that I keep mostly for the nostalgia factor nowadays. But my wardrobe is mostly the ones remaining: En Passant, of wet lilacs and bread, during the rainy season; Estee Lauder’s Tuberose and Gardenia, gifted by Noy, on hot nights; D.S. & Durga Coriander on my usual day; and Hermes Un Jardin de Mr. Li when it’s so hot that I can’t be bothered to think of what to wear.
Food, obviously, has a scent wardrobe too, and the scents that get you running to the table are different for everyone. For me — and I realize this might be a very acquired thing — it’s the smell of kapi, or shrimp paste. I just love my shrimp paste chili dip, and wherever it is served, I am usually happy to have it. On the flip side of the coin, if the nam prik kapi is disappointing or, God forbid, bland, there is nothing worse in Thai food.
Good thing, then, that I was given very recently my husband’s family recipe for nam prik kapi (what were they waiting for?). Everyone has their own version of this dish, and Win’s family is no different: they include orange juice, which makes it a little sweeter and aromatically, tweaks the scent a little bit as well. It’s not hard to make; I even managed it. For me, it’s best with some fresh Thai eggplants, a nice fluffy omelette, and some fragrant jasmine rice.
— 1 Tbsp good-quality kapi (shrimp paste. The one we most often use comes from the area around Hua Hin — Prachuab Khiri Khan — which sells kapi kuey, made from the area’s prized fermented krill).
— 3 chee fah (goat or spur) chilies, any color, sliced
— 5 bird’s eye chilies, any color
— 10 small garlic cloves, preferably Thai
— 3 cilantro roots
— 1 Tbsp palm sugar
— 4 Tbsps lime juice
— 3 Tbsps orange juice
— 1 Tbsp fish sauce
— 1 Tbsp tamarind juice
— 2 heaping Tbsps powdered or ground dried shrimp
— 1 handful of pea eggplants, if available
- If you have access to banana leaves (but namwah banana leaves only), please wrap your shrimp paste in a banana leaf and roast in the oven or grill over an open flame for 1-2 minutes. If not, roast shrimp paste in a hot pan for 1-2 minutes until fragrant.
- Mash long chilies and garlic together in mortar and pestle. If you like it spicier like my husband, add the five bird’s eye chilies and mash too. Otherwise, save those chilies for garnish at the end.
- Add cilantro roots to the mash and pound to incorporate.
- Add toasted kapi to mix and mash to incorporate. Then add palm sugar, lime juice and orange juice and mix together until incorporated.
- Add pea eggplants if you have them. Lightly bruise and stir to mix.
- Add fish sauce and tamarind juice and mix. Taste for seasoning. It should be salty, spicy, sweet, and sour, in that order.
- Add dried shrimp powder and mix. Taste again. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
- Decant into a bowl and garnish with any bird’s eye chilies that are left. Surround with fresh Thai eggplants, cucumbers and boiled eggs, along with eggplants and pork meatballs below.