The Scent of Deliciousness

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:

Perfume shelf (with zit stickers and pore strips)

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


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Add cilantro roots to the mash and pound to incorporate.
  4. Add toasted kapi to mix and mash to incorporate. Then add palm sugar, lime juice and orange juice and mix together until incorporated. 
  5. Add pea eggplants if you have them. Lightly bruise and stir to mix.
  6. Add fish sauce and tamarind juice and mix. Taste for seasoning. It should be salty, spicy, sweet, and sour, in that order.
  7. Add dried shrimp powder and mix. Taste again. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
  8. 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.


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Old Lady Shakes Fist at Sky

Mala skewers at the Chiang Mai Gate night market

If you need concrete evidence that popular culture sucks more today than 30 years ago, look no further than “Jurassic Park” (1993). If you haven’t seen “Jurassic Park” (and my 11-year-old son hadn’t until just a few nights ago), it’s the first movie of the series, based on books by Michael Crichton, in which scientists manage to figure out a way to recreate actual living dinosaurs with drops of blood taken from prehistoric mosquitoes. I didn’t fully appreciate it as much as it deserved when it came out, but rewatching it now, I see that it’s a fantastic movie with fantastic actors, fantastically directed by Steven Spielberg. The hero is a smart scientist who uses his intelligence and knowledge to make his way through a jungle hellscape populated by very hungry creatures with very big teeth. He does this, all the while shepherding two children who play the audience surrogates (one a dinosaur nerd, the other an unlikely computer hacker). Meanwhile, the woman is another brilliant scientist who spends the entire movie in khaki shorts and hiking boots. The rich guy is a well-meaning but dim Scottish person who unwittingly puts his grandchildren in danger. The bad guys are a greedy IT employee and a blood-sucking corporate lawyer. And the eye-candy bimbo is Jeff Goldblum.

In “Jurassic World” (2015), the heroes and villains have all switched places. The hero (Chris Pratt) is a former military guy who would be the like the game warden in the original movie, Robert Muldoon, but only if he were fused with the guy who trains orcas at Sea World and is also the walking embodiment of Axe Body Spray. The woman is the blood-sucking corporate cog whose sole superpower appears to be the ability to run full tilt in high heels (thanks to her improbably all-white outfit, she also does double-duty as the eye-candy). The rich guy is a South Asian man who is also a bad (helicopter) driver *wink wink*. And the bad guys are the scientists, because all that book learning leads to jerkfaces who use all their superior knowledge for their own nefarious devices. Watching both back-to-back, it’s easy to think the world — via pop culture, at least — has backtracked, especially when it comes to attitudes towards women, science, businesspeople, and Chris Pratt.

Well, I’m here to say that not everything has degenerated. I was pleasantly surprised on my most recent trip to Chiang Mai to find the streets liberally studded with “mala” stalls, modeled after similar stalls in China where you point to various ingredients, they get put on a wooden skewer, and are slathered in a spicy sauce and grilled over an open flame. Apparently these stalls are in every city where there are a lot of Chinese tourists, but somehow they are not really popular (yet) in Bangkok.

For someone who is *trying* to get through the short month of February with as much of a plant-based diet as is Glutton-ly possible, these mala stalls are a godsend. You can pick what you want — mushrooms, tofu, what have you — and even modulate the level of spice (original spicy, which boasts tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns), medium (really a little spicy), or not at all (sweet soy sauce). You can watch what you choose as it cooks in front of you. And it’s a mere 5 baht per skewer. It’s a clean eating meal (for the most part) that also costs a handful of coins. You don’t need to be a blood-sucking corporate cog to recognize this for the deal that it is.

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Self care

Graffiti in Chiang Mai

My first time at Soul Food Mahanakorn was in its first week. My friend James and I sat at the bar and I don’t remember what we ordered, but I do remember being excited to be there. “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s was playing. We had more than our share of cocktails. It was everything I had hoped it would be when I first heard about its opening, appropriately enough, over Twitter.

At the time, a mere 10 (!) years ago, there weren’t a lot of restaurants like Soul Food, straddling the line between your mom’s favorite place (insert appropriate old-timey restaurant here) and pleasant-enough eatery to take a tourist (any hotel). In short, it was that rare place that fell anywhere on the spectrum from a fun place to hang out with your friends over a couple of drinks to a restaurant to take your out-of-town guests to where you didn’t want to drown yourself in the middle of the meal.

Just last year

The truth is, Thai food in Bangkok wasn’t really hip. There were cool places to hang out, don’t get me wrong, like the deeply-lamented Rain Dogs and Wong’s, and Sarika Steakhouse and, for a while, Le Bouchon, but they all had the flavor of a student-run cafe in the basement of an American college building, or the backyard of an expat townhouse made up entirely of male models and European DJs. Soul Food was Thai food, but not precious about it, peppering its menu with plenty of Isaan and Northern specials seen as too “street” for a restaurant at the time, and a decent list of beers and cocktails that put paid to the notion that “good” restaurants needed to only serve wine. It was a culinary pioneer in a lot of ways and made people who fell somewhere in between — not quite entirely expat, not super-duper local — feel like they were at home.

I’m writing in the past tense because Soul Food has now (rather abruptly, like a loved one who passes away without warning) put itself on hiatus in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus and a government ban on selling alcohol in restaurants to control it. Soul Food was cool and fun; an evening there wasn’t complete without bonding over a Beer Lao or three or a couple of their “Exile” cocktails, says this alcoholic. I met some of my closest friends in Bangkok at the bar at Soul Food, celebrated the publication of my first street food book there, and for the first time listened as someone quoted an article that I had written back to me, not knowing that I was the author (this is obviously a bigger deal for me than for you but then again, so is this entire blog). Although the Bangkok dining scene has changed and expanded in so many ways, especially after the arrival of Michelin & Co., Soul Food was like a family member that I assumed would always be there for me.

Not to say I will lament them forever, because I truly do believe that I will see Soul Food again, in one form or another. Like most of us during this terrible time, Soul Food is simply taking a break, retreating back into itself for a time of self-reflection and self-care. I myself am trying to do this very thing. Soul Food can join me on my couch as we binge-watch “Cobra Kai” on Netflix and share a bottle of wine. We are simply holding fire, preparing ourselves for bigger and better things. I imagine that the both of us will emerge from this period all the stronger for it.

Fried rice with fresh prawns and shrimp butter, a personal favorite


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