「ST」は紙名を新たに「Alpha」として2018年6月29日より新創刊しました。 Alpha以降の英文記事はこちら
「ST」は紙名を新たに「Alpha」として2018年6月29日より新創刊しました。 Alpha以降の英文記事はこちら


The language of smells

By Tan Ying Zhen


It hit me without warning.

My neighbour was cooking dinner and the distinctive smell of sambal belachan overwhelmed me the moment I stepped out of the lift.

It was my second day back in Singapore. I'd been missing Kyoto, but the smell of this Malay condiment made me feel at home immediately.

Made of fresh chilies, toasted shrimp paste, sugar and lime juice, sambal belachan is often eaten with rice and vegetables or meats. Its strong smell comes from the shrimp paste, which is made from fermented ground shrimp and salt.

For those who love sambal belachan, a mere whiff is enough to make the stomach rumble. Those who don't often describe it as "pungent," if they are feeling kind. Someone I know said it was like a cross between rotting fish and unwashed socks.

Similar words and phrases have been used to describe the durian, otherwise known as the King of Fruits. Many Southeast Asians love the creamy yellow flesh, but the pungent fruit has sent many tourists turning away from the offensive smell.

Just as Japanese often ask foreigners, "Do you like natto?" Singaporeans frequently ask, "Do you like durian?" We are inevitably surprised when someone says yes.

For me, the smell of durian reminds me of evening walks with my family. We often walked past fruit shops that had prominent durian displays. It also brings to mind a famous durian stall where my friends often bought D24 durians, well known for their premier quality. The smell of sambal belachan conjures up dormant childhood memories of the playground after school, where we could always smell the neighbours' cooking.

Unlike some of my friends and relatives, I've never had strong cravings for durian or sambal belachan, though I'm not averse to them. But I'd never realized, until recently, how these smells had the power to evoke such vivid memories.

A friend who majored in psychology tells me that a smell can be more evocative than something you see, hear or touch. Some say, she adds, that you never, ever forget a smell.

I've become more conscious than before of the smells peculiar to Singapore. Another that comes to mind is Indian curry.

In fact, the smell of Indian curry was what sparked off a local campaign two years ago. Some Singaporeans started a "Cook a pot of curry" movement in response to a newspaper story about a mainland Chinese family who had just migrated to Singapore and complained about the smell of their Indian neighbours' curry. By encouraging people to cook curry, which is prepared in so many different ways in various cultures, the movement aimed to promote tolerance in a multi-ethnic society.

After all, everyone is used to different smells. What you find offensive might be comforting to someone else, and vice versa. Given enough time, perhaps all of us will get used to, or even grow to love, smells which we found uncomfortable at first.

So how about some durian?



The Japan Times ST: October 4, 2013

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート




2018年6月29日号    試読・購読   デジタル版