Updated: August 28, 2021 8:55:45 am
Strong smells don’t always deserve the bad rap they get. Take Vegemite, Australia’s favourite spread with a punchy, unmistakable aroma that brings tears to some eyes. So deep is the Australian love for Vegemite that Melbourne has decided to list the smell emanating from the factory where it’s made as part of the city’s heritage. The rest of the world, including India, should take note.
The Melbourne City Council’s decision is remarkable not only because a smell has been recognised as having heritage value, but because it is not one that is universally-loved, in fact far from it. Those who’ve grown up with a pot of Vegemite sitting on the breakfast table may adore its savoury fragrance — a gift of the brewer’s yeast that is used to make the spread — but those who haven’t grown up with it usually can’t stand it. This puts the recognition in quite a different league from, say, the 2018 Unesco “intangible heritage” label granted to the art of perfumery in Grasse, the French region known as the Perfume Capital of the World. It assigns value to a unique aroma, instantly recognisable to a certain culture and loved by it, even if described as “stinky” by the rest of the world. India must note the potential in this idea.
We could celebrate the sharp, unmistakable aroma of drying bombil as an inalienable part of Mumbai’s cultural landscape. What about the smell of ripe jackfruit in a Kerala backyard? Cowdung cakes being dried on the walls of a village home in Gujarat? Asafoetida may have been described by non-comprehending Europeans as “Devil’s dung”, but we know how appetising a dal smells when freshly tempered with this aromatic. And how about the muscular smell of axone, the fermented soybean paste used in Naga cuisine? If anything, this country has an embarrassment of olfactory riches to choose from.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 28, 2021 under the title ‘Smells like heritage’.