Lalwani started her perfumery practice in January 2018, beginning her research into flavour towards the end of 2017.
While it’s slowly becoming more common to incorporate fragrant ingredients like rose into food, culinary experiments with tonka bean, jasmine sambac, sandalwood extract and ambergris are still unheard of. Art critic turned perfumer Bharti Lalwani excels at the latter. For her recent exhibition Bagh-e-Hind, which was created in collaboration with historian Nicolas Roth, she translated Mughal and Rajput paintings into perfume, and, more specifically, edible perfume. Bagh-e-Hind breaks new ground in terms of how audiences can be encouraged to interact with visuals, scent and flavour.
Lalwani started her perfumery practice in January 2018, beginning her research into flavour towards the end of 2017. Since then, she has gone on to create malli-kaapi (jasmine-coffee) cocoa powder, chartreuse edible essence and vetiver brandy. She has created an important niche and raised standards of what can be expected from boutique perfumers in India. Other brands have experimented with edible perfume, but have been unable to use the term ‘edible perfume’ to describe their iterations since Bharti filed the paperwork to register a trademark for Edible Perfume in 2021.
What made you want to create edible perfume?
I began my research into flavour towards the end of 2017. It is flavour and spice that directed me towards perfumery as most of the materials—essential oils, aroma molecules, resinous extracts, etc.,—overlap in the two fields. Taste is 96% smell, so it made sense to me that perfume can be experienced via the palate. I thought about edible perfume in very simple terms, like adding cardamom to tea, is one way of perfuming our experience of it. My first perfume Green Chutney (2018) was originally crafted as an edible perfume. I expanded from there, experimenting with various combinations of tonka bean, ambergris, jasmine, rose, sarsaparilla extracts in dried powder format for flavouring food and beverage, or as a chocolate bar. I regularly collaborate with ethical chocolate-smith Aljai Singh of Ixcacao Indica to create my limited edition ‘Gul Ishaboor’ dark chocolate bars that have genuine jasmine, vetiver and sandalwood extracts.
When and why did you decide to trademark it?
My version of edible perfume innovated in ways that were unique and novel even to master-perfumers in the US and Europe, who have tasted my inventions between 2019-2021. Perfumer JK DeLapp was the first to commission me to make him a batch of Malli-Kaapi Edible Perfume (TM), and for master perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, I prepare Malli-Kaapi, Meteorite salt, and Star Light cocoa powder, among other varieties. Based on their glowing feedback, I realised two things: first, my training in art and aesthetics more than equipped me to create novel flavour and scent experiences as mediums for critical thinking, and of course pleasure. Second, that it was possible to come from the outside and still be considered an artist-inventor who contributes original concepts to these highly specialised chemistry-oriented fields.
I have been astute to the fact that these innovations are my intellectual assets that need to be protected before a corporation with money, power and resources scoops up my ideas without the need to compensate me for my research. Early in 2021, I filed the paperwork to register a trademark for ‘Edible Perfume’. A record of my ideas has been out there in the form of interviews and articles, and at least one company has already attempted to imitate my concepts, while another tries its darndest to reproduce my artistry via editions of perfume flacon that I painstakingly developed with a local glass blower. Then there are the men on the internet who do not support my business in any form but regularly ask me to reveal my sources. The trademark prevents these companies from branding their products as edible perfume; they are forced to use a variation on the same.
What do you think of competitors who are trying to do the same thing?
I have to laugh really. The materials I use are so exorbitantly expensive that it makes no sense for competitors to reproduce/manufacture on a commercial scale. Take ambergris for instance, 1 gram sells for $27, and I buy and use upto 5 grams to formulate a kilo of Malli-Kaapi cocoa powder. Ambergris is just one of the three principal ingredients in my complex recipe, the other two being coffee and jasmine sambac CO2 extracts which are also considerably expensive. Any imitation of my work—be it incense, perfume, soap, glass flacon or edible perfume—all would inevitably be pale reproductions, at which point it is not the same product or even remotely comparable. These interrogations also help me refine my own ideas and position as an artist/critic and cultural producer.
My brand ‘Litrahb Perfumery’ may scale up someday, but for the time being, everything is produced by my hand, on my terms. On the other side of this conversation are the patrons of my work. It gives me pleasure to observe that my buyers are mostly women in their 40s and up, specifically from the field of art, literature and culture. Competitors cannot buy that.
Can you tell me a little more about the edible perfumes you created for your exhibition Bagh-e-Hind?
The edible perfumes I produced for Bagh-e Hind are specific in their contexts as they function as aroma/flavour translations of five genres of Mughal and Rajput garden paintings from the 17th and 18th century. Partnering with a historian for this project meant that we pushed the boundaries of my craft. Horticulturist and scholar of early modern South Asia, Nicolas Roth, identified the olfactive cues encoded within the paintings for me. Each one presented baffling challenges: could I recreate a burst of crushed rose garlands on the palate; was it possible to taste desire on a moonlit marble terrace; could I simulate the sensation of eating an entire Mughal garden? The historian and I settled on the type of scent notes and fruit combinations that would be appropriate, he would also taste my formulations and respond to them ensuring that each perfume and flavour fit with our atmospheric themes.
Among the five, my favourites are the edible perfumes for paintings 2, 4 and 5. Narcissus-scented apricots represent painting 2, the aroma molecules travel from the back of the throat to the brain to signal contradictions—one tastes fruit but inhales flowers. For painting 4, I prepared a marmalade perfumed with cedarwood, myrrh, cardamom, tonka bean, sandalwood, jasmine and marigold, that envelopes dried figs. This formulation matured over two weeks, the figs absorbed all the flavours so beautifully that when one consumes a tiny piece, what they taste is a fig still attached to its milky, sap-y stem, leaves, branches, the entire tree, with far off notes of grass and floral parterres. It is the type of flavour that transports one into the painting itself. Painting 5 presented quite the challenge as I wanted audiences to be able to drink the love, longing and tears of the nāyika/rāginī figure, illustrated by anticipating the arrival of her lover on a bed of flowers in a lush forest at night. I prepared a floral perfume sugar-dust with nuances of kewra, palmarosa, pineapple and lemongrass that coats finely cut pieces of dried amla/gooseberry that visually appear as frankincense tears. A small piece of this amla is brewed with white tea. As it blooms, floral and tart notes of jasmine, tuberose, marigold and kewra unfold in a cup in the most magnificent way! This is all meant to be experienced together with other synesthesia elements of the exhibition, mainly the perfume, incense and raga matched to each painting.
Do you think there is a future for edible perfume in India?
This idea of edible perfume has opened up so many unexplored avenues into South Asian flavour history that it shapes our research going forward. Together, Nicolas and I are uncovering paintings and literature from this pre-colonial period that exist at the intersection of perfume, medicine, recreational stimulants and sweet aromatic preparations that are ground up with pearls or gold leaf. According to the historian, they seem in some sense like precursors to our edible perfumes, and suddenly make a lot more sense in light of the latter.
As for the future, I think every South Asian person is deeply attached to the smells of spices in their kitchen cabinets. Our love for coriander, pepper, cinnamon and saffron isn't in danger of dissipating, so I would encourage folks to spark their imagination and prepare their own magical versions of edible perfume—make mogra sherbet prepared with fresh jasmines and some sandalwood powder, grind garam masala with dried rose petals and roasted almonds, or prepare gulkand with kewra essence!