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liuzhou

Food Smell Nostalgia

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It's summer here in southern China. It's  35 º C and all the windows are open. I can hear the kids from downstairs yelling and laughing and crying. I can hear the click of the mah-jong tiles from the gambling parlour which pretends to be a hairdressers. Just a another day.

 

But mostly I can smell. I can't pinpoint which of the many apartments in the block they come from, but their windows are open too and I can smell that someone is cooking smoked fish (that's easy); another is doing a chicken soup; another a Sichuan dish with chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. Someone else is doing Hunan style duck, also laden with chillies. I don't so much smell those as inhale them. All around me people are coughing and sneezing, but no one minds. Tomorrow they will be cooking the same.

 

I can smell eggs. I can smell pickling and fermentation. Boiled mutton. 

 

Some one is cooking Mapo Tofu, I think. I can't smell this type of tofu, but the doubanjiang is probably relevant.

 

Last night one of the neighbours burned their dinner. I was sitting here and jumped up in a panic, thinking I had left something burning. But no. The smell lingered for hours.

 

________________________________________________

 

In 1985, the set-up I was then working for moved offices to the top floor of an office block in London’s Leicester Square. I turned up on the Monday morning to find all my files scattered around my new office in cardboard boxes. The phones and computers were yet to be connected. Work was all but impossible.

 

On the way in, I had picked up a 'coffee' and a bacon sandwich from one of the many stalls around the square. The coffee tasted like mud and I'm sure the bacon had never met a pig. I sat back in my chair to “enjoy” this late breakfast and stared out of the window. All I could see were the rooftops of the buildings to the immediate north.

 

After day-dreaming for a while, my nose began to twitch. A faint hint of cumin drifted through the window. Or perhaps it was star anise. And Sichuan peppercorns, too. The scent was getting stronger. I began to smell roasting pork – the bacon in my sandwich had no smell. Then, I could smell caramelising honey and duck. The roofs looked the same as they did at 9 am, but the air had changed. It was a symphony of scent and I was sitting at my desk drooling.

 

It was then that I realised that the roofs I had been staring at were those of London’s Chinatown and I could smell a hundred restaurants preparing for the day

 

The smells are the same. Mainly 'five spice powder' which is actually rarely used in mainland China. I read so many recipes on the internet which describe themselves as "Chinese" as if adding 5-spice and soy sauce to any random dish makes it in any way Chinese.

 

Anyway, the Chinatown restaurants were not that great and, on the whole, still aren’t, but by noon I was famished!

 

________________________________________________

 

I have no recollection of this, but my mother tells me that when I was kid, would come home from school and announce what was for dinner just because I could smell the ingredients. We had no fridge (it was a long time ago)  and everything was fresh. No doubt, my lovely, and now very old, mother is is romanticising the past, but I do have food smell memories from childhood. Coconut in any form sends me straight back to the over-sweet crap we ate as kids in Scotland. Confused my taste buds to Hades and back when I hit south-east Asia.

 

________________________________________________

 

Once-upon-a-time music didn't come through the air to things beginning with 'I'. Hard to believe, I know. MP meant 'Military Police' no matter if it was 3 or 4. An Apple was only a fruit (or, later, a Beatles' label). 

I was an impoverished student and took a summer job working in the local independent record shop. It was the only shop to import strange stuff from that America. We spent weeks only playing Troutmask Replica over the in-shop sound system. Cool, or what?

Next door was a fruit shop. Not a very good one.

We kind of shared a basement, in that there was a connecting door to which we both had keys. Something to do with the fire regulations, I think.

To this day, a zillion days later, I cant look at at a vinyl record without smelling rotten fruit.

 

The record store was called Hades

________________________________________________

 

I can't be the only one with strong smell memories. Want to share?


Edited by liuzhou (log)
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What a lovely accompaniment to my breakfast of leftovers. I cannot begin to match your eloquence. But I will share a couple of memories

Although I bake bread two or three times a week the smells never fail to carry me back to my grandmother's hearth. There a large butter-yellow bowl, decorated with wheat sheaves, and covered with a pristine tea towel, held the dough for the week's bread. Tomatoes frying carry me back to my childhood home in a pub. On very special Sunday mornings my father would do a fry up and the smells would drift across the entry, through the bar, and up the stairs to my bedroom. But the experience that always comes to mind when anyone discusses food smells happened in Denmark. My Danish husband and I were visiting his brother in Copenhagen. Every morning before breakfast his brother, Christian, would slip out to the bakery and bring home fresh bread. With it we would have strong coffee, even stronger cheeses, and a selection of homemade jams. Breakfast was exotic and delicious. I had no sense that I was missing anything until we took a trip one of the canal boats. It was early morning and as we drifted along between apartment buildings on each side of the canal the smell of bacon frying drifted down to us. I was hit by a most powerful sense of homesickness and hunger. I was not consciously hungry or homesick but the emotions I felt that day have stuck with me.

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Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

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When we were little, my sister and I, would go to visit my grandparents in the North. We were awoken every morning with the smell of coffee and grappa...it was a different time, different generation. I can smell the nutty crust of michette (which you cannot find almost anymore, like those, now) and that ham from the North, that in the South couldn't be found, so good and perfumed, like baby skin. And the smell of my grandfather yellow risotto, alla milanese, with saffron and pancetta, or the smell of nutty butter,  pancetta and sage over his gnocchi.

 

Back in the South the smells were completely different. All the butchers in my little town had a brick oven where they roasted lamb offal,  lamb chops, bombette and sausages. I can smell the almond wood burning and the scent of the meat. I can smell the fried egg polpette on Sunday morning to be eaten in the sauce with orecchiette. Or the onion focaccia from the bakeries. And the dried fava pure and wild chicory and meatballs.

 

It is strange but of all the other places I've lived or visited I don't have strong memories. I associate the US with the smell of white bread toasted, cinnamon and sugar and France with the buttery smell coming from the bakeries. I have no memories from my years in London

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To me, about the best fragrance in the world in bread baking in the oven.  Takes me back to childhood when my mother baked.  For some reason (could it be that in those days people used fresh yeast? The stuff in the little bricks that was refrigerated?  Whatever, there was moist, yeasty aroma to my mother's bread that I don't get from today's baking.


Edited by lindag (log)
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What a lovely accompaniment to my breakfast of leftovers. I cannot begin to match your eloquence. But I will share a couple of memories

 

Well, thank you. I'm afraid my 'eloquence' is marred by my multiple typos - and a half a paragraph which I know I wrote has disappeared, leaving the second half meaningless. A plague on eG's no editing after ten minutes* policy!

*or what ever it is

 

Your tale is more than eloquently enough put. How strange that you missed bacon in Denmark. In the UK we all think that Denmark has the copyright on bacon.  But is there anything more evocative than the smell of frying bacon?

 

 

Back in the South the smells were completely different. All the butchers in my little town had a brick oven where they roasted lamb offal, lamb chops, bombette and sausages. I can smell the almond wood burning and the scent of the meat. 

 Now, I'm drooling over the keyboard,

 

I, too spent half my time in one place and half in another and we threw in a third just to confuse ourselves. My father was Irish, my mother is French and we lived in Scotland. I spent my childhood bouncing back and forward between Scotland and France. Half a year in one and half in another. We seldom visited Ireland. I suspect there were strained relationships there, but my father never spoke of  them and he's no longer around to ask - my mother just rolls her eyes and mutters French obscenities if the topic of Ireland if is ever brought up, I only really discovered the place as an adult and fell in love.

 

But I digress.

 

Even as a very young child I knew Scotland and France smelled very different. Without wishing to stereotype, France smelled lactic and green. Scotland more cereal and salty.

In Scotland, we lived inches from the sea. I could swim before I could walk. Scotland lands some of the best seafood in the world. but 95% is exported to France and Spain (and China). It is heartbreaking. Yet bizarrely, Friday was fish day. My family were not at all religious. Despite her Frenchness my mother had renounced the church as a teenager  and turned into a fervent atheist, a position she holds to this day in her 90s. (My father did what he was told and ended up with a humanist funeral which Mum insisted he wanted. I don't think he cared one way or another.)

Anyway, despite being religiously non-religious and certainly not Catholic, we were obliged to eat fish on Fridays. The butchers just gave up and had a day off. Friday in Scotland just smelled of badly cooked fish. My mother would buy it from a van. I'm not sure the van even sold recognisable fish species - just 'plain fish' or 'smoked fish' (actually dyed). Whichever you bought, the correct way to cook it was to boil it in milk until it surrendered. The smell of boiling milk still makes me heave.

 

In France we lived in northern Provence. Less access to seafood you might think, but we got loads of it - mostly imported from Scotland. But for me, France smelled of vegetables and cheese. And bread. And olive oil. And herbs. Well, France just smelled. In the best possible way. Scotland was relatively scentless - apart from Fridays. There were no herbs in Scotland. Apparently .

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Growing up in South Louisiana the smells  of childhood are rich and varied, strong coffee, file in gumbo, frying anything, fresh seafood, saltwater, and spices. Having a father from northern Louisiana I have memories of pot licker and greens, biscuits and gravy. and fresh vegetables. Others are coffee mixed with cigarette smoke, stale beer from the local bar's trash, fresh bread from the bakery next door to our unair-conditioned school (at about two in the afternoon just as we were becoming bored to tears), the restaurants getting ready for customers, 'dressed' roast beef po-boys, the smell at the butchers as he made fresh sausage, and too many others to list.

 

But the strongest food smell I remember is the spicy boiled shrimp laid out on wooden platforms to dry in the sun, the canvas that covered them for protection at night, and the smell of the shells as they were tumbled off in what looked like huge dryers. Then the shrimp packaged six or eight in little cellophane bags stapled too a card backing ready for sale.

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Dwight

If at first you succeed, try not to act surprised.

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Aromatics are called aromatics for a reason and there's nothing that transports me to a culture more than when that first blush of aromatics hits the pan and the scent envelopes the room. Whether it's the ginger, garlic and spring onions of Cantonese cuisine or the Mirepoix of French food or the Trinity of Cajun food or the sizzle of spices, onion & ginger that is India. 

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PS: I am a guy.

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Charcoal! Whenever I smell real wood charcoal burning, I jump back to the Middle East, where the smell of lighting or burning charcoal is on every corner, whether it's the local kababist firing up his grill or indeed grilling meat, or the brazier full of charcoal for the nargile (hookah) cafe that an be found on nearly every block in Beirut. I don't even need to smell the meat grilling, though of course that doesn't hurt, especially if it's the scent of lamb grilling.

 

More locally, the hot waft of Old Bay or JO crab seasoning in the air, wherever it may be, speaks of nothing but a lazy afternoon at a dockside craberia in the Chesapeake Bay area, smashing and eating one salty and spicy steamed blue crab after the other, accompanied by cold lager.

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I grew up eating rather utilitarian food and, except for peach cobbler, I just don't have those particular smell memories.

 

My sweet wife and I have just returned from our annual eastern Sierra trout fishing trip. If it had not been for the generosity of my father-in-law, who is part of these trips, there would have been no trip this year. We all got skunked this year. The drought in California is affecting "the lake." My wife has been going up there for close to 50 years, I joined this tradition over 30 years ago. We fish the same lake every year.

 

When we do catch trout, they get cleaned and then go into the freezer and are kept frozen until we are ready to have some. What is amazing is that we can smell the lake when we defrost the trout, and that is a heavenly scent.

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Porthos Potwatcher
The Once and Future Cook

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Nice topic, Liuzhou.

 

When I was a teenager, my bedroom/homework room was a sleepout attached to the garage, separate from the main house. This was a good arrangement; I had my stereo and, up to a point, could have it as loud as I liked.

 

I also liked to have snacks while doing my homework out there, and went through a phase of having a bag of fresh, in-the-shell peanuts on hand while Led Zep IV was on the stereo.  To this day, I can't hear Black Dog or Rock and Roll without the taste/smell of peanuts popping into my head.

 

I'm sure there have been other sounds or experiences that have triggered a food memory, but this one's the most vivid.

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Leslie Craven, aka "lesliec"
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The smell of the newly awakened  forest, the  dampened moss, the whisper in the  trees, the sun rising to warm the ground, brings me back to a happy time of enjoyable but simple food memories.

When I was just wee child, we used to go foraging  in the forest for  berries and mushrooms. Pack our backpacks and set out for a long walk straight into the deep thick forest.

The noise of the human world  would  slowly dissipate and soon the air was filled with the whistles of foxes, songs of birds and barks of deer.

 

It was magical world for us children, was that troll that looked out from that rock or was that the elves dancing or just fog rising from the mire in the early morning sun?

After years of walking through the forest it became home, there is the troll rock, there is the rickety footbridge over the mire and there is  the elk island, I knew the places by heart and I knew their smells. Nothing more safe and comfortable then sitting on a flat rock with a mug of hot cocoa and cheese sandwich and ending the meal with handfuls of bilberries or lingonberries or cloudberries. 

 

Even the foul smell of the wellies sinking into the mire brings back joyful food memories. Sitting on capercaillie hill, rotting moss falling off the wellies and Rhododendron tomentosum in my hair to ward of mosquitos and that cup of hot cocoa.

 

My mum made a powder from cocoa, sugar, vanilla, salt and powdered milk and all you needed to do was mix it with hot water from the thermos flask and stir with a twig  that was just heaven and I think it tasted even better because of the location.  

 

And my  father's father carried the same smell of the forest in his clothes, he hunted and fished  and would bring home elk, deer,  hare and all sort fish, most often fish and sometimes a duck. The smell of the wood burner, he used  juniper wood for game meat so it would infuse and make the most lovely  roasts  and  crackling from the fire, just would make  me smile.

 

But those times came to abrupt end in 1986 when Chernobyl blew. We had a two season ban on mushroom picking in our area and 1 season  ban on berry picking and we were lucky not to have a ban on game meat.  

 

The forest never felt the same afterwards but the smell can bring me back to happy and carefree time and memories of those battered sandwiches and hot cocoa.

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Cheese is you friend, Cheese will take care of you, Cheese will never betray you, But blue mold will kill me.

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Growing up on the east end of Long Island one of my main scent memories is the smell of low tide.  To this day when we head down the shore and cross the Egg Harbor bridge and it is low tide I feel like I am coming home.  Course low tide means clamming and picking mussels off the rocks...drawn butter and clam juice.

As others have mentioned baking bread ...

I walked into work just before Easter and even before I got in the back door I knew what was cooking - lamb.


Nothing is better than frying in lard.

Nothing.  Do not quote me on this.

 

Linda Ellerbee

Take Big Bites

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This is a very interesting topic, Liuzchou.

 

Food smell memory is a completely different kind of memory physiologically.

 

All the other memories can fail you, but not food memory. You will immediately recognize the taste of, say banana, 50 years later. Interesting too, many people can tell you they can visualize flavors.

 

I often dream (when I am sleeping) about the street food smells and tastes of street foods those times I was in China.

 

dcarch


Edited by dcarch (log)

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When I was growing up on Long Island (NY) from the age of 6 to 12 our next door neighbors had half of their backyard devoted to growing things. And bee keeping. For me, fresh raspberries take me back to those hot summer mornings when my friend's Mother gave us bowls and put us out into the bushes to pick the ripe berries (they had blueberries and blackberries in addition to raspberries) but there is a particular smell that fruit and vegetables get from the hot sun and even now if I'm lucky to get a fresh tomato hot off the bush I inhale deeply. As for their bee keeping, toast with a thin scrape of butter, then a drizzle of honey (5 minutes removed from the comb), that was a treat they introduced to me.

It's funny but my food memory triggers seem to be more centered around the raw ingredients (and my Mom is a good cook). Probably the linkage with the happy summer vacation vibe!

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"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast" - Oscar Wilde

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What makes a wine memorable? What makes a wine stick in your memory in a way that you can recall every nuance of its bouquet, colour and taste even decades after you have drunk it?

 

The depth and quality of an expensive fine wine? Perhaps. Or maybe a perfect match with a perfect dish in a perfect meal in a perfect restaurant? Yes, it could be that, too. Or sometimes, it is the company or social circumstances that you find yourself drinking in that remains with you. I suppose one should remember the Champagne at one's wedding, but in fact, few people do. I can't even remember what we drank. Although, I'm sure it wasn't tea.

 

Thinking about this recently, I racked my brains trying to think of examples of wines which remain with me, not necessarily for their great quality. It doesn’t have to be a wine which has had the critics in ecstasies, although those, too, can be memorable, of course.

 

But, perhaps surprisingly, I decided that the wine I remember most vividly is a simple cheap wine which I drank from a plastic cup n the middle of a rather smelly fishing port dock area. I was sitting on an abandoned and broken chair which threatened to collapse at any minute. The food, eaten from a paper plate, certainly didn't match the wine even remotely and the whiff of rotten fish and petrol/gasoline hardly contributed to the experience. But it remains one of my happiest wine drinking memories.

 

About 25 years years ago, I went on a family holiday to a tiny resort village on the French Mediterranean, near to Perpignan on the border with Spain. This is Languedoc-Roussillon territory, home to Vin de Pays d'Oc and the world's largest wine producing area, responsible for more than one third of all France's wine. No one will pretend that the wine is in the top grades, but it produces some perfectly acceptable everyday drinking wines.

 

So armed with my high factor sunscreen, I settled down to a lazy couple of weeks by the Mediterranean. Parts of my body which hadn't seen sunlight for years (i.e. most parts) were exposed to the elements and I spent the first few days doing nothing very much at all. But all that lying around doing nothing quickly became boring, so we took to strolling into the nearby village, visiting the market and generally being tourists. We stocked up on beautiful breads, local cheeses and grabbed flagons of what appeared to be the very local vin ordinaire wines. The locals would look at the cheeses we had selected and make their wine recommendations, which we were happy to go along with. They were dirt cheap, but a fine accompaniment to our simple lunch. The afternoons were happily spent sleeping off their effects.

 

We got in a bit of cultural tourism by fitting in a couple of day trips into the mountains and to the beautiful city of Perpignan where we temporarily abandoned France and, bizarrely, had a lovely meal in an Indian restaurant which had been recently opened by someone from London!  I’d be astonished if it were still there.

 

We visited the ancient historic walled city of Carcassonne, where we had a more sensible traditional meal of the local speciality, cassoulet, a slow cooked dish of preserved goose, local sausages and beans. This was again washed down with a local wine, but sadly I can't tell you what it was. I doubt it had a name, as such. It was served from a jar and everyone in the restaurant had the same wine. It was the kind of place which doesn't do a menu. There is one dish and one wine. And both were delicious.

 

Towards the end of the first week, while wandering near our holiday apartment, we turned left instead of right and found ourselves in a less picturesque area. This was clearly where the locals really worked when not looking out for the tourists. There were car repair places, decorating material shops, carpenters, metalworkers, stone masons, builders etc.

 

And coming from the centre of the area was the most wonderful smell. Garlic, wine and herbs and the unmistakeable smell of fresh seafood. It was a little early for lunch and far too late for breakfast, but we forced ourselves into this tiny shack and asked for the menu. When we did, the woman serving us pointed to the wall where it said

 

a) 20 Francs lunch;

b) 25 Francs lunch;

c) 30 Francs lunch.

 

We are greedy people, so we went for the 30 Francs lunch for two. (The kids were playing on the beach.)

 

Huge shivering plates of seafood arrived. Lobster, crabs, mussels, oysters, clams, prawns and much more. Again, this was served with anonymous local wine which matched the food perfectly. We went back every day for the rest of our holiday.

 

On the last week, we discovered from the woman in the restaurant shack that the Friday was to be the Feast of the Assumption, the Catholic Christian festival and that this was to be celebrated in the traditional manner. Further questioning revealed that this consisted of the local fisherman supplying the entire village's lunch. We were assured that we would be very welcome and she kindly pointed out the location. The empty loading yard on the dock beside the main fish market.

 

So, on the Friday, we rolled up at noon to find the place packed. The fishermen and their families had set up long barbecue grills along one side of the square where they were grilling sardines so fresh they hadn't realised they were dead yet. There were tables piled high with crusty French baguettes, then more tables piled with fresh peaches. Then, barrels and barrels of wine. The locals were picking up paper plates, loading them with smoking hot sardines, grabbing some bread, a plastic cup of wine and finding anywhere they could to sit and enjoy this simplest of lunches. Then they would go back for more.

 

And I did too. The wine was a red Pays d'Oc and probably not the best match for grilled sardines or for peaches. But I sat on my broken chair, looking out over the Mediterranean lying behind the boat sheds, feeling exquisitely happy and very, very full, but ready for just one more cupful.

 

I still can't smell petrol without thinking grilled sardines.

 

(Notes:  a) This is a (slightly edited) translation of an article I wrote for a Chinese wine magazine a couple of  years ago, hence the wine slant. I just remembered it and thought it fits in here. b) Under my agreement with the magazine I retain the copyright, so can post freely.)

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The smell of onions and garlic sautéing in the morning is nostalgic for me. My mom would start cooking dinner early in the morning. I remember waking up to that smell often and sometimes get a wave of nostalgia when sweating onions to this day

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