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In praise of smelly food

From freshly-baked bread and candy floss, to her mum's garlicky curry that reminds her of home – Javaria Akbar loves eating smelly food and doesn't care who knows it

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By Javaria Akbar on

Italian judges fined a couple for tormenting their neighbours with the overpowering odour of fried food last month. Done for “olfactory molestation” this crime doesn’t seem so bothersome to me. I love smelly food in much the same way that Benedict Cumberbatch adores the thee-artaar and Zoella delights in a Summer HIghstreet haul – unapologetically and with great gusto.

But it hasn’t always been like that. Back when I was a kid I was embarrassed of my mum’s pungent Asian cooking because it made my clothes smell like they’d been washed in Lenor Garlic Infusions. I remained completely still and downdraft of my mates in the playground, like a podgy totem pole with a ‘tache. The old me would’ve been upset hearing the recent news of the landlord who bans "coloured people" from renting his properties because the curry smell gets into the carpets. The grown up me, now besotted with the evocative qualities of all food smells, doesn’t give a shit.

There’ve been many moments in my life when I’ve happily gone out smelling like a Sunday roast, all gravy-ish, potatoey and familiar, like a granny off t’ bingo, no longer embarrassed of having the residues of a comforting meal on my person.

Evocative smells make me want to liberate the disposable cutlery that nestles in the bottom of my handbag and feast in situ, which is why I never go to the bakery section of the supermarket hungry

There’s something about the heady scent of a crusty loaf baking in the oven, the vinegary smell of fish and chips and the charred notes of a skewered kebab roasting on the embers of glowing charcoal that instantly lift my mood and transport me elsewhere.

As expected, these evocative smells make me want to liberate the disposable cutlery that nestles in the bottom of my handbag and feast in situ, which is why I never go to the bakery section of the supermarket hungry (who wants to be known as the woman eating a poppy seed bloomer in the fish finger aisle with a fork and knife?).

Explaining the connection between food smells, flavour and hunger is a complicated business and, if you believe everything the academics say you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when peckish, tired or living with an impaired sense of smell triggered by pollution. Research from the Yale School of Medicine suggests that a heightened ability to imagine food aromas, let alone actually smelling them, could result in cravings and potential weight gain. Leading olfactory scientist Dr Kara Hoover maintains that modern day pollution is damaging our sense of smell, affecting our ability to taste and making us crave salty and fattening foods even more because of their strong flavour. And then there’s the study that says that I shouldn’t go grocery shopping when I’m feeling tired – apparently the brain is more sensitive to food smlles when we're sleep deprived, which could "lead to excess calorie consumption and weight gain "– bad news for new parents whose sleep debt rivals that of the GDP (the only thing that stopped me from nodding off while breastfeeding was the continuous shovelling of salty crisps into my yawning mouth).

For me, all this research is missing the emotional side of food aromas and the affect they have on our moods. As Nigella Lawson once put it when describing the wafting vanilla scent of a just-baked egg custard tart, certain food smells are an “airborne comfort.”  

It’s the sweet burnt-sugar perfume of pink candyfloss that reminds me of going to the summer fair with my dad and feeling utterly special on our father daughter day out. It’s the singed smell of burnt toast that transports me to my school days where I’d use a butter knife to scrape the black bits off the crust, leaving a sign in the sink for my mum that breakfast had been eaten. It’s the overpowering vinegary smell of pickles that gave me respite from morning sickness and the smell of pungent garlic and earthy cumin that makes me homesick for my mother.

So much of life seems to focus on self-editing ourselves so we’re neat and neutral, placid and protected, flavourless and fragrance-free. But it’s recognising the messy bits, the smelly bits, the craggy upside-down bits that truly liberate. So I’m kicking up a stink; when it comes to food, the smellier the better.


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