In any gustatory experience, aroma is as important as flavour. Few have appreciated this truism over the centuries as much as the Mughals. In their obsession with creating fragrant food, the storied epicureans would go to the extent of growing vegetables on plots irrigated with rose- and musk-infused water. Hens were raised on breadcrumbs soaked in saffron and rosewater, and massaged with musk and sandalwood. Rare flowers were grown in the royal gardens and their fragrance distilled into luxurious perfumes, some of which would find their way into the matbakh (royal kitchen).

When the royals ate, the dining halls were perfumed with aloeswood- or camphor-scented incense. Adding to the heady experience would be the aromas wafting from the flatware. In their food, the khansamas would add a delicate but complex balance of aromatic ingredients, ranging from saffron, dill and mint to basil, rose water, orange blossom water and musk.

It is believed the Mughals and other Muslim dynasties of the subcontinent inherited their fixation with fragrant food from the culinary traditions of the Islamicate, especially Turkish, Persian and Arabic gastronomy. Cookbooks from the region – Ibn Sayyar Al Waraq’s 10th century Kitab al-tabikh and Al-Baghdadi’s 13th century Kitab al-tabikh, among them – emphasise scent while expounding on the aesthetics of cuisines. Recipes in these books demand a variety of aromatics, but especially rose water, which is typically added at the end. Readers are advised to scent cooking vessels with ingredients like musk, ambergris (cetacean waste derived from sperm whales) and spikenard (an aromatic herb that grows in the Himalayas).

A similar preoccupation with olfactory rapture characterises the Ni’matnama. A quirky book of recipes compiled in the late 15th century, the Ni’matnama is studded with recipes perfumed with ingredients ranging from fragrant flowers and herbs to asafoetida, musk, ambergris, aloeswood and spikenard. A recipe for kufta (meatballs) demands musk, camphor, rose water and white ambergris. In another recipe, skewered meat is rubbed with a mix of saffron, ambergris and rosewater. And in yet another, meat is roasted in pits, the walls of which have been rubbed with fragrant flowers.

From these elaborations, it might appear that the Mughals and the Arab world were the only celebrants of fragrant food. Far from it. Cuisines across the world have for millennia used aromatics – from herbs and spices to complex compounds of exotic aromatic substances – to heighten culinary aesthetics and amplify the pleasures of eating.

Nose for good food

In the subcontinent, the Mughals’ passion for fragrant food was matched by the nawabs’ zeal for it. Known for their refinement and sophistication, the Nawabs of Awadh would require their khansamas to use pure aromatic extracts and complex attar (oil-based fragrances made by distilling the essences of aromatic flowers, herbs or spices) in the kitchen. Rosewater, kewra and attar were integral to their cuisine and continue to be a part of Lucknow’s food.

“In addition to attar, there are a host of herbs, roots and spices used in the complex spice blends that are a hallmark of Awadhi food,” said Mohsin Qureshi, executive chef of Lebua Lucknow, Saraca Estate, who specialises in Awadhi food. Among these ingredients are paan ki jad or betel roots, khus ki jad or vetiver roots and jarakush or lemon grass. “These aromatics also have several health benefits and typically aid in digestion,” Qureshi maintained.

Sophisticated techniques of aromatising food exist outside the royal kitchens too. Food writer Saee Koranne-Khandekar, for instance, talks about Guravali, an intricate recipe archived in Kamlabai Ogale’s iconic Marathi cookbook Ruchira. In this dish, jasmine buds are painstakingly inserted at night into deep-fried dough balls with sweet stuffing. The next morning, the pastry is served once the buds bloom inside, infusing it with fragrance.

In southern India, edible camphor, an aromatic terpenoid derived from the bark of the camphor tree, is often added to desserts, especially payasam. Another summer favourite in the south is paanagam – jaggery-infused water made fragrant with camphor, basil and dried ginger. Moving east, in Odisha, pana – a mix of jaggery, milk, yogurt, chhena (fresh cheese curds), coconut scrapings, bananas, flavoured with aromatics like cardamom, nutmeg and edible camphor – is a ritualistic offering to the deities on Pana Sankranti that falls in April.

In southern India, edible camphor is often added to desserts, especially payasam. Credit: Ross thres/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license].

Like mortals, gods too like their food fragrant. In Hindu tradition, gods are offered food of the mortals as bhog or naivedya, some of which has been enriched with the herbal, cool and spicy notes of edible camphor. At Shreenathji Temple in Nathdwara, Rajasthan, devotees can offer a camphor-smoked sweet pastry called thor. At the Srirangam Temple near Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, the offering is anoor Satti Aravanai – a “kheer-like dish made with cooked rice, molten jaggery and ghee, flavoured with cardamom, saffron and edible camphor,” said Sujata Shukla, the author of Bhog Naivedya, which explores temple cuisines from across the country.

“Lord Jagannath is said to love fragrances,” said food historian Tanushree Bhowmik. “In the summers, the deity is offered malliphula pakhala (cooked rice soaked or lightly fermented in water) mixed with curds and jasmine flowers. Another variety of the pakhala, known as subas pakhala or subasita pakhala, is perfumed with jasmine, mogra, frangipani and ginger.”

Ancient texts

The Indian subcontinent, with its rich reserves of natural aromatics, always had a tradition in the alchemy of olfaction. But the tradition got richer because of the region falling on old trade routes. “India was characterized in medieval European discourses as the land of spices, perfumed by paradise,” writes scholar James McHugh in Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Food and Culture (2012). “In terms of the real long-distance trade in the primary aromatic materials of the old world – namely sandalwood, musk, camphor, aloeswood, saffron, frankincense and ambergris – the Indian subcontinent was on the way to everywhere.”

Ancient Indian texts and medical treatises mention numerous aromats used in perfumery and curative concoctions (such as medicated oils) that possess potent medicinal virtues. The Charaka Samhita, for instance, lists a class of aromatic drugs – Sarvagandha – that includes white sandalwood, aloeswood, cubeb, cassia leaves along with spices like cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. Aromats also appear in recipes for aphrodisiacs and love potions documented in ancient texts and treatises like Vatsayana’s Kama Sutra and Kokka’s Rati Rahasya.

Over time these spices and aromatic plants “transcended the obscurity of the pharmacopoeias by their renown and became familiar in daily life in medicine, perfume and cookery,” writes scholar Anya H King in Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World (2017).

Still, aromatic ingredients were often rare, expensive and exotic, and the preoccupation with olfactory aesthetics was often a signature of affluence and connoisseurship. A number of Indian texts, primarily composed by kings or courtiers, feature recipes enhanced with a panoply of aromatics.

Paka Darpanam, a text on ancient Indian cookery attributed to King Nala of the Nishidha kingdom from the epic Mahabharata, features a number of recipes with aromatics such as camphor, musk, screw pine and nagakesara or ironwood flowers in addition to fragrant spices. Among these recipes is a rice and meat dish cooked in ghee with coconut milk perfumed with the fragrant flowers of Ketaki, camphor and musk. Another dish in it is supa, a lentil number flavoured with asafoetida, camphor and aromatic flowers along with ghee that itself has been flavoured with spices.

Medieval texts such as Supa Shastra, written by King Mangarasa III, and the 11th century Lokopakara, written by poet Chavundaraya II, also feature recipes with aromatics. Manasollasa (1129), a Sanskrit text written by King Someswara II of the Kalyani Chalukya dynasty, mentions gandha churna, an aromatic mix of spices and herbs including black pepper, cardamom, cloves, camphor and saffron, which is mixed with honey, jaggery and yogurt to make Shikharini, perhaps a predecessor of the present-day shrikhand. “The most common spice to appear in the Manasollasa is asafoetida, often dissolved in water – a practice still followed in Maharashtra and Gujarat,” writes food historian Colleen Taylor Sen in Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India (2014).

Living traditions

Centuries later, asafoetida is still a pantry staple in kitchens across the subcontinent, used extensively in vegetarian cuisines and often as a substitute for alliums. Many of the spices yoked under the label Sarvagandha in ancient Ayurvedic treatises are contained in the ubiquitous garam masala, synonymous with Indian cuisines in Western discourse.

Across the country, there’s still a thriving tradition of wrapping food in aromatic leaves that not only act as a vessel but also add their aroma to the dish. Karnataka’s moode idli, for instance, is steamed in screw pine leaves. In Uttarakhand, there’s Singauri, an iconic Kumaoni sweetmeat made of khoya and coconut that is wrapped in tender Maalu leaves to give it a peculiar, camphor-like scent.

A few communities have over the years devised ingenious hacks to infuse fragrance into food. One such technique is dhuni or dhungar. In it, a bowl with a small piece of hot charcoal is placed in the cooking pot with the preparation. Ghee is poured on top, and once smoke starts whirling out, the pot is lidded to trap the smoke inside. Among Dogras, hot coals are added to a bowl of mustard oil, which is placed inside the pot of cooked meat and covered. This infuses the meat with a distinct smokiness. The list goes on and on.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.