Thinking About Smells

After about two minutes in town, I knew that I wasn’t going to do any of the cultural things that I had imagined earlier. But then food and friends are the stuff of daily culture and I see the guys so rarely. So I divided my time between trying to get some writing done in the hotel garden and hanging out with Pancho and Rambo at work, trying not to be in the way. I was somewhat successful in both.

I’ve often said that half of cooking is smell. If you smell nuts toasting in the oven, you are ten seconds too late. I teach my cooks to finish sauces by the way they smell- browned butter, burnt whiskey, caramel all have an exact smell when they are just right. An alarm often heard in the kitchen is “huelo negro!”- “I smell black” usually meaning that the rice is scorching. Mexico is full of the smells of food , I think in part because so much of the cooking is either done outside or in open fronted buildings. It’s just not the same in the United States.

The first one I noticed this trip was not from cooking at all, though. The road to Rambo’s butcher shop goes past a kindergarten and across from it is an empty lot. On my first morning there as I walked by it I was surprised to smell what seemed like fresh herbs. Frankly, that stretch of road often smells like sewer gas, so I took notice. In the field across the street was growing wild mint, cilatro and epizote. The sun on the plants released their fragrance and made you crave a Vietnamese spring roll.

Wherever you are here, there is a sharp but appetising odor that is vaguely meaty. At first I thought it was from those revolving cones of meat that are carved from to make tacos “al pastor”, but now I think that it from the red caldos or broths that are made with dried red chilies. These two things are often found in the same places. On the mornings that Luis (I should probably have said before that Luis and Rambo are the same person) cooked caritas, I could always smell them before I could see the shop. I have on occasion tracked down new eating places by their hood fan emissions. Port of Call in New Orleans and Tryon Palace Seafood in New Bern are two examples. One of the most pleasant smells here is that of the guayaba. It’s a small green fruit whose flesh is a cross between a pear and lychee nuts. Its aroma always stands out in the busiest market, where thousands of them clash. There was a bowl of them in the lobby of the hotel this afternoon and they perfumed the whole first floor.

One last thought on this. One smell I have noticed all over Latin America is that of freshly washed sidewalks in front of stores and restaurants early in the morning before they open. The cooking has usually begun by then. The combination is a lovely one that can be found in Managua, or Quito or Celaya.

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