How many times have you heard that we eat with all five of our senses? Olfaction, or the keen human sense of smell learns of an imminent treat even before the eye or tongue get a ‘whiff’ of any sensory stimulus. Ever had the 3 o’clock feeling when you pass by your office kitchen as the butter from just-popped corn disperses from the microwave? Or walked past a boulangerie or bakery and developed a healthy appetite? Or had a sweet heady high feeling from just smelling good coffee? Lingering food smells are always dreamy unless of course your cuisine of choice is Indian; In that case it is a wardrobe and hair nightmare.
The trouble is that Indian food smells extremely inviting when it is fresh and hot and oh so delicious. There have been many days in my years of apartment living when I felt instantly homesick having woken up to the smell of ‘khichdi’ or ‘paratha’ or ‘rasam’ from the kitchens of my many Indian neighbors, dispersing through the long carpet lined corridors in the building. That same night as I would return home, I would be instantly nauseated by the weakened, yet prominent elements of the same morning smells in the corridors. Like the smell of cooked basmati rice. Or cooked lentils. It is never the freshly ground spices you smell at this time long after the food has been cooked and perhaps even eaten. Those volatile pleasant odors just disperse into thin air. What you smell are the persistent remains of background ingredients that penetrate through everything. You skin, your clothes, your hair. No amount of perfume or cologne in the world can help you. The only solution is a nice long soak in the bath, good amount of scrubbing and some rinsing with scalding hot water. Lather, rinse, and then repeat. Do that for yourself then for your entire closet.
Now it is my personal belief that the smell is mainly due to the type of oil used and type of degeneration it goes through at the temperatures it is heated to. Olive oil can stink up a whole neighborhood if heated high enough to make a proper Indian ‘tadka’. You need a good heat friendly vegetable oil or sunflower oil for that. Even then there is a chance you will be walking around smelling like ‘dal’ depending tadka ingredients and how long you let them brown. About 65% of all Indian food calls for frying in hot oil – and invariably the oil gets beaten and battered at high temperatures and the aromas of the oil fumes just envelope and eventually overpower your natural scent.
So, am I saying avoid Indian food? No, absolutely not. The best thing you can do to your palate is to experience the flavors of Indian cuisine. Ask any Indian worth his/her dhoti/dupatta – they will tell you that when it comes to combating the strong, complex aromas of Indian cooking, prevention is better than cure. I assure that like my husband, there are many of them out there have tried to study the wind patterns in their poorly ventilated North American kitchens. Many a ‘gadgets’ have been invented to direct the air from the kitchen out through the closest windows. We used to have a dedicated fan near the kitchen that had to be turned on high speed and angled just right to sweep the cooking air out through the back door. This was in addition to a loud vacuum inducing exhaust over the stove. I no longer mind that the exhaust drowns the sound of the TV or music playing in the background.
Allow me to offer some wisdom on dampening the possible effects of Indian cooking on your home atmospheric air. Before entering the kitchen to begin prepping for cooking, be sure to close all other doors to all rooms in the house, including closet doors. Make sure you are not wearing your ‘going out’ clothes, because you are going to have to put everything you are wearing for wash as soon as the cooking is done. Put away any odor sensitive items such as blankets, sweaters, coats etc behind closed doors. Open up windows on two opposing walls if available, to induce some healthy cross ventilation in the kitchen and attached living areas. You want to leave the air only one place to go – out the open windows. Remember warm air rises like a cloud. So a cold breeze from a fan or AC vent near the heat source can greatly improve circulation. A good quality over-the-stove exhaust is absolutely essential – be sure it is on before your stove turns on. Proceed to enjoying the cooking process at your leisurely pace now. Keep the exhaust fan going for atleast 30 minutes after the cooking is done. With these precautions alone you can minimize damage area. Don’t wait too long before cleaning up the kitchen after all the cooking. Store your leftovers in airtight containers in the coolest part of your refrigerator (top shelf closest to the freezer). Now you may light up some fragrant candles or oils until you get your house back.
Say you forgot to take some of the precautionary measures and your house now smells like last night’s dinner. Allow me to impress upon you the fact that I told you so. But I will also offer some possible solutions. Close all the windows, and turn up the heat in your house to a level above the outside ambient temperature. I know you will get sweaty, but don’t be impatient. Now turn the heat off and open all doors and windows for about 15 minutes. The warmer inside air will escape out while you welcome the cooler fresher air in.
So while the popular stereotype about the exotic Indian food staying with you long after coming in contact with it may have some truth – hope by now I have helped you lose some of your fear of trying out the cuisine for yourself. As for the other myths and stereotypes like imaginary ingredients, namely ‘curry powder’, well, that’s a whole another topic for another day.