Lingering Scents

It is good to wake up to the lingering mingled scents of last night’s stir fry. Since I have two kitchens, and currently the upstairs kitchen has the more powerful stove, I do all of my stir-frying upstairs. There is inadequate ventilation, so if what I cook is strongly-scented, it hangs around at least until early morning.

Apparently, a lot of people object to cooking smells in their homes. I didn’t realize this until I worked as a personal chef and people would exhort me to use their noisy ventilation hoods to “get rid of the cooking smells.” I always thought that was odd; to me, kitchen smells are homey and inviting, but then, I grew up in kitchens, so maybe I am biased. Even when I complied with the request to turn on the vent hoods and put up with the grinding noises the fans made, some clients would burn Yankee Candles (which I kindly refer to as “Stankee Candles,” though not to my clients, of course) all over the house.

Me, I preferred the natural food smells to the vile chemical concoctions of Stankee, but they were paying me, so I held my breath and cooked.

This morning I awoke to the heavenly melange of Thai Basil, shallots and garlic with just a hint of chile and of course, fish sauce. Some might object to the fish sauce smell, but really, it was mostly overpowered by the first three scents, and besides, as I mentioned recently, the stuff grows on you.

The spicy-sweet smell of the Thai basil is particularly potent; I took two bunches of it from my CSA at the farmer’s market on Saturday, and then over the past two days, have stir fried two highly-flavored dishes with it. On Sunday, I made Spicy Basil Chicken and yesterday evening, I made Drunken Noodles, so I probably have two day’s worth of stir-fried basil smell wafting through my upstairs.

Thai basil is a lovely plant, with violet-green square stems, and deep royal purple colored blooms. The leaves are dark green, sometimes shaded with purple, and are gracefully almond-shaped. They do smell somewhat like the more familiar Italian basils, but the licorice-green scent is nearly overpowered by the strong cinnamon and lemon overtones. There is a medicinal tang to the aroma of freshly plucked Thai basil that I find to be quite compelling, and like Pavlov’s dog, I need only get a whiff of it to start drooling. (Unlike Pavlov’s dog, I can wipe my mouth on a napkin, kleenex or sleeve in order to avoid public embarrassment. Thumbs are very cool.)

I cannot fathom quite why anyone who loves good food (and presumably anyone who would hire a personal chef would fall into this category) could not abide cooking smells in thier home. To me, the scent of food is just as important as the flavor of it; in fact, the two go hand in hand.

We only have taste buds that discern sour, salty, sweet and bitter. That is it, though there are some scientists who say that our tongues can also taste the meaty, complex flavor which that Japanese call “umami,” but the jury is still out on whether that is a singular flavor or a complex of several flavors that is picked up not only by the tongue but also the olfactory organs in our nose.

Speaking of the allmighty olfactory organs, our nose plays as much part as our tongues in the enjoyment of food, and it is through scent that we learn distinctions between different flavors. If you notice, I described the differences between Italian basil and Thai basil in terms of smells; that is because most of their flavor profile is based in their scents. That is why herbs, spices, garlic, ginger, chiles, citrus zest and onions are collectively referred to as “aromatics” in culinary parlance.

Aromatics are used to flavor foods and to give each dish its own distinctive character.

These seasonings also are the main culprits when it comes to smells which hang about in the nooks and crannies of the kitchen. Seafoods, particularly fish, shrimp and squid, will linger on in the kitchen for a time, as will the scent of meat and vegetables of the brassica family: cabbage, kale, collards and broccoli, for example.

If you do a lot of stir-frying, as I do, the combination of very hot oil and highly scented ingredients leads to aerosolized essential oils; once the basil, ginger, garlic or chiles hits the wok, their essences leak into the cooking oil which is then dispersed into tiny droplets throughout the air. These droplets settle eventually, leaving a bit of a film that a lazy housekeeper might miss in her cleanup efforts, thus leading to the lingering cooking smells that so many have issues with. Steam also carries cooking smells, probably farther than the afformentioned nearly-microscopic oil droplets, and is likely the reason that I can wake up down the hall from the kitchen in my bedroom and be greeted by the delectable fragrance of Thai basil, shallots and garlic from last night’s stir fry.

I love that.

By late morning, the smell will disappear, and it is up to me to cook up another lingering aroma for tomorrow.

Drunken Noodles


1 pound narrow rice noodles (not the thread-shaped ones, but the narrow ribbon kind)
1 whole chicken breast, boned, skinned and trimmed
¼ cup Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
2 tbsp. cornstarch
3 whole scallions, trimmed
5 large cloves garlic, peeled
1” cube fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
2 tsp. chili garlic paste
1 small shallot, peeled
3 Thai bird chilis, sliced thinly (optional)
Peanut oil as needed for stir frying
4 tbsp. fish sauce or to taste
1 can thinly sliced bamboo shoots, drained, rinsed, and drained again
½ cup julienne sliced carrots
¼ cup julienne sliced red sweet pepper
½ cup fresh pineapple cut into small chunks
¼ cup fresh pineapple juice
¼ cup chicken broth
4 tbsp. oyster sauce or as needed
1 tsp. thick Thai soy sauce (optional)
1 cup mixed fresh herbs–cilantro, mint and Thai basil, in any proportion or combination you like
zest of one lime
freshly squeezed lime juice to taste


Soak rice noodles in warm water until they become white and pliable. Drain well in a colander, and set aside.

Using two-cleaver method, or one chef’s knife, mince the chicken breast finely. I do not recommend using a food processor or using ground chicken from the store, as the texture of the chicken should be irregular, with some pieces larger than others, to give more textural interest to the dish. When minced, toss with wine and cornstarch and set aside.

Using a mini food processor, grind up scallions, garlic, ginger and shallot.

Heat oil in wok, and add ground up aromatics along with optional bird chili slices. Stir and cook for one minute, until very fragrant. Add chicken, reserving as much of the wine as possible, and stir and fry until nearly done, about two minutes. Add fish sauce. Add vegetables and fruits and stir fry one more minute.

Add noodles, then pour in juice and chicken broth, and vigorously turn and stir the noodles to combine with the meat and vegetables, as well as to let them soften and cook in the combined liquid and oil. Keep stirring! If you stop, the noodles will try and stick to the bottom of the pan, and some of them will get soft and some will stay chewy. Cook until noodles are uniformly soft, then pull off of heat.

Add herbs and stir to wilt.

Add oyster sauce and soy sauce, stirring and turning noodles over and over to combine ingredients. Add lime zest and juice to taste and serve immediately.


I learned to make this dish when I was in culinary school in Providence, RI. The Thai restaurant where I always used to eat, Siam Square, had a great chef and a wonderful waiter, who went very far in educating my palate to the subtleties of Thai food, and between them, I learned a great deal about cooking Thai food. Mostly by eating and asking roundabout questions; the waiter would never tell me straight on what was in a dish. He would only let me guess, and would tell me if I was right. It became a game, then, to see if I could learn how to cook my favorite dishes. I am happy to say, that eventually, I was successful, though I admit to adding the pineapple to this dish as my own touch.

According to Kasma Loha Unchit, author of my favorite Thai cookbook, It Rains Fishes, drunken noodles are so named because they are so spicy that they are used either to cure hangovers, or they are so hot that they induce diners to drink a lot of beer to quench the fire. In either case, I have to say this: they are good, and while the version I learned used minced chicken, Kasma’s version uses mixed seafood instead. She also uses fresh wide rice noodles instead of the narrow dried rice sticks.

The version I made last night that is pictured here, lacked the bamboo shoots as my cupboard was oddly bereft of them, and since I had no chicken, I used ground pork instead. I also dispensed with the soy sauce, as I had none handy, so the noodles turned out paler than usual. I used five very spicy Thai chiles grown here in Athens, along with the curry paste, and probably two and a half cups of Thai basil along with a half cup of cilantro, because they needed to be used up before going wilting into utter disreputability.

The verdict is thus: the soy sauce was not missed, the pork is loved even more than the chicken, the chiles were grand and the excessive use of herbs was fantastic. The three of us ate most of that pound of noodles, with only enough left over for Morganna to take to school for lunch tomorrow.


RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. I used to carpool with a woman that couldn’t stand the smell of garlic. She liked other spicy food, but not if it had garlic in it.


    Comment by Anonymous — September 13, 2005 #

  2. Hm, I generally like cooking smells. Bread being a definite favorite. It bothers me if I can’t eat what I’m smelling sometimes though.

    I can’t handle smelling food when I’m feeling nauseous or panicky though… partly because I reeeally don’t want to think about food at that time, and partly because any extra smell in the air seems to make me feel all chokey (okay, so that’s not really a word…). Maybe the people who don’t like food smell have weaker stomachs? But I would think if they are intending to eat it they would want to smell it. Helps you to get in the mood for what you’re going to eat.

    Sorry if I make no sense… it’s been a long day. Hm, wow… I need to go to bed I think.

    Comment by Karyl — September 13, 2005 #

  3. Sherri–my first husband was that way. He liked only a little bit of garlic in a dish, and always complained that I used too much.

    Karyl–I agree that when nauseous, food odors are too much. It is mostly people who regularly dislike the smell of food who I have trouble understanding.

    One of my favorite personal chef clients was a pregnant Chinese-American woman who could not stand cooking odors because of her morning sickness. Like me, her nausea was not confined to morning–it happened all day every day throughout her pregnancy. So, I would cook and have the vent on and she would hide upstairs, and I would not cook anything with garlic or onions in it. I ended up making stuff with lots of ginger, and bringing her pickled ginger to eat, which settled her stomach. I also got her to eat Indian candied fennel seeds, which also calmed her stomach.

    Finally, she was able to sit in the kitchen and keep me company while I cooked. She was very sweet and interesting–she was finishing up her PhD in psychology.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 14, 2005 #

  4. I love candied fennel seeds—I buy them at the supermarket in the spice section.

    Smells are a big reason why I grow herbs–
    If it’s damp when I get home from work, I smell chamomile, when I water the box I smell basil(I agree that Siam is wonderful), when I sit on the deck with my morning coffee I smell sage.

    When we are gardening the Weed Slave and I are smelling things allll the time. And, by now, eating the irrepressible tomitillos as well–still planning on sending a tomatillo wreath @ end-of-season.

    Comment by wwjudith — September 14, 2005 #

  5. Mmm–tomatillos! I love those guys!

    Yeah, I love herb smells. Just adore them, and that is why I was so bummed to have lost all of my lavender. At the Pataskala house, I had seven or eight thriving lavender plants–here, every last one of them died.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 14, 2005 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress. Graphics by Zak Kramer.
Design update by Daniel Trout.
Entries and comments feeds.