Aromas of the Gastronomical World - An Indian Perspective

Our palate enjoys the taste of food; however, our olfactory senses play as much of a role in enjoying the delicious gastronomical preparations. Even before we look at the dish, its aroma reaches us first to trigger our senses and hunger. An aroma of an Indian tadka can be ascertained from a long way from the kitchen; a sprinkle of thyme, fennel or rosemary is enough to make a culinary preparation scent the table and its surrounding. The aromatics are often the first detectable flavours as we take the first bite of our favourite dishes, which is the cause of our heightened liking for them over the years. 

When cooking a dish in any part of the world, the first addition to the pan is an aromatic. Vegetables like onion, ginger, garlic, leeks, or carrots are added with oil or fat to release their optimum aroma. Other key ingredients are added to the pre-tempered aromatics to prepare a soup, sauce or curry. In Asian cooking, ginger, garlic, and scallions make the aromatic base for soups and stir-fries. In Mediterranean cuisines, the aromatic base of onion, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes is added with olive oil. In Thai cuisine, lemongrass is a prominent aromatic whose aroma gives Thai dishes their distinctive flavour. 

In the cuisines from South Asia, especially the Indian subcontinent, using spices as aromatics is commonplace.  Talking of aromas in Indian cooking, ghee plays a vital role as well. Ghee, when heated, provides an ideal base for aromatics to delve in, bringing out the best flavour and aroma. Heeng or Asafoetida, also infamously known as the Devil’s dung, is an insatiable aromatic used in Indian cuisine. Its astringent profile makes it an appropriate substitute for onions and garlic. The aroma of Heeng and ghee heated together quintessentially speaks of the vegetarian cuisines of India. 

Moreover, the aroma of cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, carom seeds etc., crackling in oil or ghee is often the essential step in many regional Indian cuisines. A slight whiff can ascertain their addition to culinary preparations. Whole spices like cinnamon stick, cardamom (Green and Black), Bay Leaf, and star anise added to ghee leaves its flavour and aroma, making the resultant dishes like Biryani, or a Korma, so aromatic and romanced. Adding coriander, mint, dried fenugreek, or curry leaves elevates the taste. Royal cuisines of India use many different aromas in their dishes. Using flowers for their sweet scent is one of the unique features of Indian cuisine. Rose petals make sweet dishes, beverages, and mouth fresheners. However, distilled rose water is used in savoury dishes primarily for their aroma. 

Similarly, Pandanas flowers are distilled to produce Kewra water, an essential ingredient in many Kebabs, Kormas, and Biryanis recipes. The famed Saffron is one of the most prized products extracted from a flower. Kashmiri saffron is by far one of the most expensive culinary products in India, with prices going upward of 300000 rupees per kg. Its beautiful crimson colour and aromatic properties make it a luxurious and royal ingredient. A Kashmiri ‘Kahwa’, or a ‘pulao’, desserts like ‘Kheer’ or ’Rasmalai’ make ideal use of Saffron. ‘Meetha Ittar’, an edible perfumed essence, is used in the Mughlai cuisine of India, making dishes like its famed biryanis so delectable and irresistible. Many traditional Mughlai Bawarchis (Traditional Cooks) have their mix of fragrant spices and ‘Ittar’, often kept as a family secret. 

Indian cuisines use different elements to create aromas and retain them. Charcoal plays an essential role in imparting the smoky flavour of tandoori dishes. Similarly, the ‘Dhungar’ cooking method uses burning charcoal over which spices and clarified butter (Ghee) are poured to create a concoction of aromas, a unique style of cooking which sets the ‘Dhungar’ dishes apart and is loved for the smoky, spicy scent of it. 

The utensils we use in Indian cooking also play an essential role. Cookware made of clay, brass, iron, and copper is commonplace in an Indian kitchen, providing a unique aroma to the dishes. The woodfire, too, plays a role in imparting the sweet aroma of dishes cooked on it. Using a pestle and mortar is not just a sustainable way of grinding spices and making spice paste but also helps retain their aroma. A cup of tea or lassi consumed in earthenware cups called ‘Kulhad’ has a unique earthy aroma, which cannot be experienced in any other form of utensil. One of the finest fish curries I have tried was cooked by my dear friend and guide to Kerala cuisine, Pooja Menon, who cooked her fish mango curry in a ‘Meen Chatti’, an earthenware utensil specifically used to prepare fish curries in Kerala homes. Each bride gets one Meen Chatti’ from her mother to use in her kitchen. Pooja got one of those traditional ‘Meen Chattis’ too, and the fish curry cooked in it had aromas which are hard to forget. 

There are numerous examples of aromas in Indian kitchens. The usage of fermentation to derive aromas, be it in beverages like ‘Kanji’ or the traditional use of fermented soybean called ‘Akhuni or Axone’, in Nagaland and other northeast Indian states, the aromas in Indian kitchens are unique and cater to a diverse set of palates and olfactory senses. Use of leaves to cook dishes wrapped in it, or to serve on it, leaves its essence. The various oils used in Indian cooking, like mustard oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, groundnut oil etc., lend their aromatic touch to the cuisines in which they are used. 

Most ingredients have a smell associated with them, and to derive their best aromatic features lie in the clever cooking techniques involved in the process. Indian cuisine probably has attained supremacy in this gastronomical art form. Our palates can decipher flavours like sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and Umami; however, our olfactory senses can recognise thousands of different aromas, which remain the culinary recall of our favourite dishes worldwide. In India, our childhood memories are associated with food cooked by our mothers and grandmothers. No matter how much we grow up and try various cuisines of the world, the aroma of our mother’s cooking remains in our fondest memories. And now, as my memory takes me back to my mom’s ‘Heeng wale jeera aloo’ with ‘Methi ka Paratha’ and ‘Bathue ka Raita’, which dish are you thinking about? Do let us know. 

Sidharth Bhan Gupta, Founder of 361 Degrees Hospitality, is a Hospitality / Food and Beverage / Restaurant Consultant, Travelling across India on a Cultural and Culinary Exploration.