With constant innovation in what can be devoured, even the days of molecular gastronomy are behind us. If vetiver brandy, chartreuse edible essence and malli-kaapi (jasmine-coffee) cocoa powder aren’t progressive food, I don’t know what is.
“Smell is taste,” says Pune-based art critic-turned-perfumer Bharti Lalwani. Running things at Litrahb Perfumery since January 2018, Lalwani has experimented with edible perfume more than once. “I made a grapefruit marmalade that was so fragrant I thought of elevating its aroma-facet further by adding frankincense!” she told me over email. Besides that, she has combined a fig jam with bergamot, geranium and lime essential oils; a strawberry jam with cedarwood and black pepper extract; a brandy-based edible perfume of ylang ylang and ginger to spray over brownies; an oil based coriander spray to lift soup and salads.
“This is when I did a lot of research on essential oils, fragrance and flavour enhancing techniques, and guides on food-as-medicine. I came across perfumers who work with chefs to use aroma chemicals to create marvelous experiences on a plate. This is what gave me the confidence to explore perfumery,” Lalwani says.
Now, she is launching a “Gul Ishaboor Synaesthesia Box” [Gul Ishaboor is Urdu for tuberose] with a 60gm perfume soap with a cotton flower set in it, perfume chocolate, a glass incense stand, two types of incense sticks (vetiver, and cow dung + frankincense), a mini handmade broom to sweep away the ashes, a vintage brass bowl, and an ubtan (a traditional sandalwood, cedarwood, rose and vetiver face and body scrub made with powdered medicinal herbs and gram flour). The box costs $170, which includes international shipping. A Gul Ishaboor perfume oil can be added to the box and costs a further $100. The chocolate is meant to be eaten in the presence of the incense.
Perfume chocolate is another novel idea that Lalwani executes in collaboration with Aljai Singh, a Goa-based chocolatier. “The perfume is infused into cocoa butter which is then mixed with the chocolate before tempering into bars,” Singh told me when I asked about how the perfume is infused into chocolate. “The perfume chocolate I make for Bharti is made using her specially formulated perfumes which are from ethically traded sources and edible,” she adds.
"I’m currently developing the experience of eating mitti with my chocolatier, Aljai Singh," Lalwani tells me when I ask her about other types of edible perfume she may have experimented with. "Mitti meaning mud or petrichor (the scent of rain falling on soil) is a perfume I created for the monsoon season. The idea is to craft raw honey with earthy nuances of vetiver, which is eaten with slightly salted 100% dark chocolate fingers—which, Aljai assures me, simulates the feeling of eating mud and 'isn’t for the faint hearted'."
Lalwani’s artistic process is mostly intuitive. Her training as an art critic gave her the necessary aesthetic and the rest comes from what she feels is right. “It’s another level of enjoyment and perception,” she reflects, when talking about edible perfume.
Between 2014 and 2018, Lalwani explored various disciplines and paths. She describes it as “an agonising period” during which she “had to examine her place in the world of Southeast Asian contemporary art, her academic and career options amid dwindling opportunities.” Now, Lalwani’s edible perfume is going places. London-based chef Pratap Chahal was the first person to try her malli-kaapi edible perfume, which she made as a brandy-based essence. Chef Chahal has trained and worked mostly in French Michelin restaurants in the UK such as Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, Le Manoir aux quat Saison and Chez Bruce with his Indian training at the Cinnamon Club. He often uses scent elements in his food, from rose petals, frankincense resin and vetiver root to absolutes and essential oils. "My favourite scent is vetiver (khus) which reminds me a lot of growing up in Central India. It's the one I use the most followed by frankincense which has the most incredible flavour," he tells me over email. I asked him about his experience with trying Litrahb's malli-kaapi edible perfume. "I fell in love with it immediately," he said. "[It] reminded me of South Indian flower markets and it is incredibly evocative of the scents and aromas of South India, and has an incredible flavour when mixed in with coffee."
More recently, Lalwani put together a malli-kaapi cocoa powder. Made with cocoa powder, ground-up orange peel, sandalwood powder, ground coffee, spices (cardamom, black pepper, clove, cinnamon, ginger, bay leaf and nutmeg), Himalayan salt, CO2 extracts, jasmine grandiflorum, jasmine sambac (the main component), ambergris, tonka bean and castor sugar, the powder is meant to taken in small quantities. Lalwani recommends eating it sprinkled over ice cream, dusted over tiramisu (a teaspoon mixed with 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder), or in coffee or hot cocoa.
Lalwani describes the malli-kaapi cocoa powder as “a dirty, floral, narcotic fragrance”. One of the patrons of her malli-kaapi cocoa powder is JK DeLapp, founder of Rising Phoenix Perfumery based in Atlanta, Georgia. Rising Phoenix Perfumery is a home-based operation that ships packages compounded and bottled by hand. DeLapp also retails Lalwani’s creations at his shop on Etsy. This year, he is excited about putting together a package with edible perfume, soap and artisan chocolate in collaboration with Lalwani. “We’ve had such a good response to the malli-kaapi edible perfume that we’ve elaborated on the concept for a new iteration,” he told me over WhatsApp. When talking about the malli-kaapi edible perfume, he said that his favourite has been enjoying it on ice cream.
I asked DeLapp whether he thinks there is a future for edible perfume. “Absolutely,” he says. “Folks are intrigued but hesitant—until they get a chance to try what Bharti’s been making. It’s not just good or interesting, mind you—it’s outstanding,” he tells me.
Chef Chahal agrees. "Very much so," he says, when I ask him the same question. "A lot of chefs are exploring ways of incorporating these new flavours into their cooking through using natural ingredients such as resins, roots, bark and flowers to oils and infusions. Most of what we taste is through our olfactory sense so there's so much to be explored with all these various perfume ingredients that have stunning flavours previously unexplored in most cuisines." Chahal elaborates by explaining how cuisines have used forms of edible scent: "in India, there is the use of screwpine (kewra), sandalwood, vetiver (khus) and rose, whilst in Oman, frankincense is used to flavour stews and teas whilst orange blossom is used a lot in Arabic cooking."
Considering the fact that sensory exploration is involved in creating it, edible perfume could easily be the future of food. Litrahb's malli-kaapi edible perfume is priced at $75 for 40 grams on DeLapp’s Etsy shop. While prices are in keeping with tags for gourmet food, a lot about making edible perfume seems like going back to the basics. Lalwani tells the story of her practice and creating malli-kaapi in the documentary Fragrantly Yours by Asiaville:
“Malli-kaapi was created based on a young woman’s description of her hometown in South India. She described the smells found in old, traditional coffee houses: it’s the smell of roasted, bitter coffee beans, of an orange being peeled, the smell of pungent spices being cooked into ancient recipes; it’s the heat, humidity, and the smell of jasmine flower garlands ornamenting the heads of hundreds of women.”
Watch the episode here: