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The Power of Smell

Credit Alison Cook, Houston Chronicle

Credit Alison Cook, Houston Chronicle

The Houston Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Alison Cook, has a wonderfully descriptive essay on how the evocative aromas of some dishes bring up memories and associations, and really make a difference in how you experience food.  I highly recommend it.

The same idea came to me the other day when my wife, back from a business trip to Bahrain, brought me back a spice from the market there I had never seen before called dar filfil.

Dar filfil (left) and licorice root

Dar filfil (left) and licorice root

These hard dried fruit spikes (they look a little like tiny pine cones) are grated and used as a spicy seasoning, which is why they are sometimes called “long pepper.”

The flavor is similar to black pepper in that it’s sharp and fruity, and it makes your tongue tingle. But there is also something more that comes out in the smell. A friend was over, and we ground one of these little cones into a hillock of powder when we both made the same comment: The smell! Musky, floral, kind of papery. It was so familiar — something from long ago.

We decided it was the smell of a 1970’s shop that sold patchouli oil, Indian bedspreads, sandalwood, incense and — in a little room in the back — head gear.

The taste of this spice is bright and clean — I’m really enjoying it.

Two questions: Has anyone tried dar filfil? And have you recently had a restaurant dish that brought a memory back?

2 comments Add your comment

J

January 27th, 2010
9:05 pm

I’ve never tried the spice, but I will now after reading this. Experimenting with spices has always been fun!

I haven’t had a recent restaurant dish that brought back memories, but certain dishes that my mom and dad cook when I’m home bring back memories of childhood that, until I smell those smells, aren’t in the forefront of my mind. For example, after being in Texas for a year, I went home for summer break. Even though it was 70 degrees outside and humid, my mom fixed Chicken Soup and Cornbread – the first smell that hit me when I walked in the door was the cornbread, something I’ve not been able to find in my area of Texas, at least not to the same qualifications as my mother’s cornbread. The first thing that I thought of was a winter when I was really sick, cold after cold after cold, and my mom made chicken soup and cornbread almost every week because it was the only thing I felt like eating. Now it’s my quintessential comfort food.

Now anytime I smell cornbread I immediately think of home and my mother standing by the stove stirring a pot of chicken soup, flour sitting nearby as she makes a quick rue.

It’s been scientifically proven that our recollection of certain memories is further enhanced if there’s a specific smell or sound or taste that goes with it. I’ll most definitely read Ms. Cook’s article with interest!

J

January 27th, 2010
9:07 pm

I’ve never tried the spice, but I will now after reading this. Experimenting with spices has always been fun!

I haven’t had a recent restaurant dish that brought back memories, but certain dishes that my mom and dad cook when I’m home bring back memories of childhood that, until I smell those smells, aren’t in the forefront of my mind. For example, after being in Texas for a year, I went home for summer break. Even though it was 70 degrees outside and humid, my mom fixed Chicken Soup and Cornbread – the first smell that hit me when I walked in the door was the cornbread, something I’ve not been able to find in my area of Texas, at least not to the same qualifications as my mother’s cornbread. The first thing that I thought of was a winter when I was really sick, cold after cold after cold, and my mom made chicken soup and cornbread almost every week because it was the only thing I felt like eating. Now it’s my quintessential comfort food.

Now anytime I smell cornbread I immediately think of home and my mother standing by the stove stirring a pot of chicken soup, flour sitting nearby as she makes a quick rue.

It’s been scientifically proven that our recollection of certain memories is further enhanced if there’s a specific smell or sound or taste that goes with it. I’ll most definitely read Ms. Cook’s article with interest!

(I apologize if this shows as a duplicate post – my browser glitched when I opened this blog post)