It was shocking to me, but in a pleasant way. Standing outside my hotel in Paris, waiting for someone to decide on where to get a coffee, a woman in an orange dress passed me on the street. In her wake trailed an aroma, something fruity yet floral (maybe Dolce & Gabbana’s “The One”?), almost as tangible as a long scarf floating in the breeze. Coming from Asia where it’s far too hot to mess around with one’s own “aroma”, I was surprised but remembered … oh yes, that’s what French people do with their perfume. They spritz it all over themselves, willy-nilly, and allow themselves to be smelled, even after they’ve passed you by.
After that, I registered every perfume I smelled. A lot of floral-fruity, which was surprising, I thought, for a sophisticated city like Paris. Lots of Eau d’hadrien by Annick Goutal. Some figgy-green Philosykos by Diptyque. A Pamplelune from Guerlain that I recognized, because I’d worn it myself throughout my 20s, as well as a Samsara or two, but only on the right bank. The temptation grew so great to add to the cacophony of perfume-y smells that I succumbed, finally taking a taxi on a rare moment off to the Palais Royal (nowadays pockmarked with empty retail spaces, echoing the complete erasure of the famous fresh market on Rue de Buci).
This is where the Serge Lutens store lurked, unremarkable, in a shaded corner. In front of a clerk who made all of the world’s stereotypes of a snooty Parisian come true, I made the wrong choices (leathery Daim Blond instead of floral De Profundis) and my daughter did the same (Femininite du Bois, but at least, as the first girly wood perfume, it is an historically important scent). It ultimately didn’t matter, since afterwards we, too, were free to add to the symphony of smells that made up Paris.
Not to say that I would ever trail a “perfume scarf” behind me on the streets of Bangkok. After spending decades in Asia, I have become unaccustomed to strong perfumes. I keep my scents (mostly green, fresh, chosen for hot weather) close to my chest, literally. I cannot bear to fight with the other smells that assail the average person on a walk down the road: frying garlic, dust, cooking garbage, water evaporating on hot pavement, an undercurrent of sewage.
I found it strange that in France, a land where people are free to smell so flamboyantly, the smells of their food — garlic, onions — would be found to be so offensive by polite company. Yes, there is that sizzling platter of frog legs or escargot, redolent of garlic and butter, just begging to be despoiled by a torn hunk of baguette in front of you, but if you go home to your significant other, mouth aflame with the aftertaste of maitre’d butter, they are likely to not be overjoyed (although Walmart does sell a garlic-scented spray).
In Thailand, and I suspect in a lot of other parts of Asia, the opposite is true. You may not smell, but your food certainly does. Anyone who has walked past a stir-fry cook making pad kaprow knows this very well. Indeed, Thais think of the smells of food (yes, even shrimp paste) as necessary additions that enhance, rather than detract from, the dish as a whole — much like a French woman with her perfume. Torn lime leaves and bashed lemongrass bulb smells are good for you, ideal for if you have a cold. Floating galangal in a thin coconut broth are refreshing. Chopped coriander leaves and roots mean that love and care have been taken in the preparation of your food. Shrimp paste and fish sauce? Well, that’s just around to make you hungry. Smell is so important that Thais even make candles that are supposed to be lit while making dessert, infusing the final product with a smoky aroma (think Comme des Garcons’ Incense series).
For all of the technique and care taken in the preparation of French food, I feel that the issue of smell has only recently been addressed, with molecular gastronomy-influenced touches like smoking, dry ice vapors, and burning. It’s one of the reasons why I (somewhat biased, yes) think Thai cuisine is often overlooked as something sophisticated. Instead, it is almost always presented as rustic and in need of “Western cooking techniques” in order to advance. I’m not saying there is no need for advancement in cooking techniques; Thai food must evolve just like everything else. I’m just saying that Thais can look to themselves for the inspiration that they need, let their freak flag fly, and trail that aromatic scarf of kapi and nam pla behind them like no one is smelling.