Follow Your Nose: An Olfactory Guide to Cities

Street food markets in Indore, book-scented streets in Kolkata and clammy subway rides in New York City—places can also be defined by distinct smells.  
Follow Your Nose: An Olfactory Guide to Cities
In Kolkata, the streets are scented with the smell of flowers and books. Photo by: JeremyRichards/ shutterstock

Much like people, places have peculiar smells too. The aroma of a camel milk soap might transport you to a souq in Dubai, or the scent of freshly chopped cedar could open a mental portal to a family holiday spent in the Himachali town of Jibhi. Chances are—if you walk into a local bakery in Mumbai—vivid images of summers spent in your grandma’s kitchen in your hometown might flash across your mind, and leave you craving for a morsel of that homemade banana bread.

What does smell have to do with a destination, one might wonder. A report published in The Telegraph explains that the olfactory bulb, which is part of the brain’s limbic system, is closely associated with memory. Our olfactory system is a powerful sensory tool. Perhaps, powerful enough to evoke memories stacked away in the subconscious, which when triggered can jot mind maps to faraway landscapes. As virtual travel catches on in the era of lockdown, team NGTI has charted olfactory guides to some of their favourite places.

 

Austin, Texas

When I come home, Dad is breaking freshly, fallen pecan wood, destined to curl around a brisket that drinks in a buttery bite. As the meat readies for an eight hour smoke, I jump in my ‘93 Dodge Dakota, the upholstery steeped in a warm, smouldering bath of Marlboro 27s. A ride out to Dripping Springs means breathing in the charcoal-y sulphur of .22 gunsmoke wafting out of a barrel that just hit a clay pigeon.

Cruising back from the suburbs calls for a drive-thru stop at Top Notch, cranking Led Zeppelin in the parking lot while I wait for the bellhop to bring over the balmy whirl of comfort steaming out of a chicken fried steak sandwich. Then it’s happy hour at The Little Longhorn Saloon, the papery odour of stale Lone Star beer that only costs a buck greeting me at the entrance. In the morning, I wake up to the scent of rosemary, whiffs of woody evergreen mixing with the musty elegance of cracked paper, sauntering into my bedroom from the kitchen; mom’s making biscuits and gravy… I can almost smell how great this day is going to be.

— Julian Manning

 

Mangalore, Karnataka

Even before the train pulls up at the station, the aroma of red soil whisked with the salty ocean breeze welcomes you to Mangalore. Beyond the rice fields by the roadside, coconut trees dance like shadows in the distance. If you wander too close to old houses with red tile roofs, the smoke of firewood and dried leaves wafting through the kitchen window will greet you first. The stench of the day’s fresh catch bought from the local fish market is replaced with an aromatic recipe of tamarind-infused meen gassi simmering in a kalchatti.

A visit to Kateel Durgaparameshwari Temple is ritualistic in itself. Women tuck the fragrant mallige or jasmine flower in their neatly combed hair. The scent is, however, overpowered by the burning of incense sticks and camphor balls that cloak the premises. Step outside and walk into a hole-in-the-wall canteen to tuck into plates of steaming goli baje, masala dosa, madur vada or a freshly brewed cuppa filter kaapi. The real mood sweetener is an evening stroll at Kaup beach, which is spent indulging in orange and raspberry-flavoured cola pepsi ice candy sold at the ice cream carts parked on the sandy shores.

— Pooja Naik

 

Kolkata, West Bengal

In Kolkata, brace your nostrils for pandemonium. And I don’t mean the funky cocktail of fish scales and dog crap, which will make due appearance. I mean the confusing scent of tram-sweat mixed into the pages of third-hand books in College Street. Or the deep-fried aroma of fish chop and braised cutlet from north Kolkata ‘cabins’ on a Sunday morning.

Enter a doshokorma bhandar, selling assorted puja items, and the Marxist literature you picked up on a whim will tremble under holy traces of sandalwood and jasmine incense. Should you stay long enough in the city, the muddy squelch of gill-peppered fish markets will smell no less sacred—second only to the beef roll-and-biriyani-perfumed air of Zakaria Street. Southern Avenue peddles salty whiffs of tamarind water, packed into softball-sized phuchkas. And in monsoon, the Saridon sweetness of kadam flowers. Like you will learn the smells of cheat-silk and real cotton along Gariahat footpaths, you’ll remember the dank and dewy air of Lake Market for kilograms of marigold, tuberose and gladioli escaping giant cane baskets.

Maidan you’ll remember for the smell of cut grass and football shoes. And Nimtala Crematorium, for repeating stories that smell like fire, loss and dying river water. On your way out, ask someone to tell you the time. As the stranger peers into his watch seriously, memorise that mix of Old Spice and Navy Cut. Time-worn and timelessly precious—you have taken in Kolkata.

— Sohini Das Gupta

 

New York City, New York

You first follow the music and then your nose in New York City. Summertime here is a special treat to the olfactory senses, with heady blends of halal food, stale beer and a whole lot of sweat. While these smells appear dissonant and hardly appealing, it also breeds of the familiar. A walk to Prospect Park in Brooklyn is layered with scents of oranges and vehicular fumes. Inside, there’s the freshness of newly-cut grass stained with overspilled vino. In neighbourhoods like Crown Heights, drifts of something illicit creme the air, diluted in part by the earthy, smoky sage sticks from the Raasta stores that litter the corners of Nostrand Avenue.

Chinatown is layered with the spice-mixed smell of roasted pork and fresh seafood, while Soho, a 15-minute walk away, is washed with overpriced caffeine and premier perfumes. Riding the famous New York subway will leave you with drizzles of someone’s leftover sub, metal and in some cases—even piss—on your journey downtown. Each smell is as funky, strange and exciting as the very city it covers through and through.

— Sanjana Ray

 

Indore, Madhya Pradesh

I know I’m home when I wake up to the scent of mutton biryani being cooked in my mum’s kitchen, her signature dish. The crackle of onions and the aroma of slow-cooked meat is a feast for the senses. Even outside the four walls of my house, Indore is identified by its food hotspots. Sarafa’s night bazaar is a smorgasbord of smells: the melting fat from aloo tikkis being fried golden with chole steaming right next to it, cloyingly-sweet scents of giant jalebis and malpuas being taken out of iron kadhais, the spicy, nutty smell of bhutte ka kees and dahi bada being doled out (and sold out!).

In a different part of town, there is Chappan bazaar (56 shops). The scent of sizzling omelettes stacked between buns will mark your path at Johnny Benjo. To the left, follow your nose for Indian Chinese rolls and fried rice. The coffee guy hands out a pour of filter coffee with cocoa powder liberally sprinkled on the foam, a whiff of it enough to beat the chill.

Back home, mum is now making butter chicken, the fragrance of butter in the tomato-based curry giving her surprise away before I enter. The big guns are out, after all, her daughter is home.

— Lubna Amir

 

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller India and National Geographic Magazine, head here.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?