Indian spice tray emanating different smell auras: a box of incense, a bowl of curry, an Indian restaurant, and an Indian cityscape.
Design by Arunika Shee

Whenever my family and I return from an extended leave from our house, the smell of hardwood always fills our nostrils. My sister and I turn up our noses at it, and I promise myself to use the time I have left to replace it. Over that time, I work tirelessly, taking care of my family’s chores, of course, but also to fill up the house again: lining a pressure cooker with ghee, dropping cinnamon bark and cloves and coriander seeds, chopping onions to sauté, peeling and grating never-ending cloves of garlic and ginger, throwing in staple spices — like jeera, haldi and lal mirch — measured by nose alone, then pureeing some tomatoes to roast with salt and pepper and whatever protein I’m actually cooking. In no time, the smell of the hardwood goes away and a new scent settles over the house — or for me, a lack of scent. 

A different smell washes over me during my family’s weekly trips to the Indian grocery store, the accumulation of countless Desi foodstuffs being packed as densely as the shop owner could in his portion of the strip mall. That scent is familiar to me, synonymous with begging for mango juice and sitting on bags of rice bags when I wasn’t boxing them. In my childhood naivete, that Indian store was the only one that existed. Of course, this would be dispelled by visits to multiple stores in the Detroit area — these collections of Indian groceries were far more massive than anything I’d ever witnessed. The aroma was the same, however — from the quaint store of my hometown to the Patel Brothers in Detroit, all the way to Ann Arbor’s own Om Market — a smell that knocked me back to my rice bag seats.

Every time my family has traveled somewhere, we’ve always stopped at an Indian restaurant. My sister and I have teased this habit of seeking our own cuisine in new locations, but I’ve come to understand it more now. When you’re in a place foreign to you — whether it’s been a couple years or nearly three decades — it helps to find familiar food. It helps to take in the sight of foods eaten in my house’s thalis recontextualized in restaurantware, to flood your tastebuds with the flavors your parents made, to tear roti and dosa with your own hands and eat until every sense is full. Of course, you can smell it first before you see, taste or touch it, mouth watering before the restaurant is even entered. That sense comprises one-fifth of my reality but contributes even more.

Some aromas elevate me above my reality. In any house I’ve lived in, we’ve always had a room with a cupboard. Idols, pictures of gods and passed loved ones, flower wreaths, religious texts and, of course, incense sticks are all arranged together. The cupboard shrine was built before a temple was built in our area, but we still use it, lighting that incense every Sunday so that the room they live in is dedicated to the divine aroma of our gods. Every Sunday, that incense elevated me to somewhere beyond this room with a cupboard we’ve packed religious memorabilia in. Since I’ve moved out, I haven’t been able to take in that earthly perfumed fragrance as often. Any time it’s lit now, I ascend again.

One night I was biking through my hometown, closer to the downtown area, and in a flash, some odors struck me in combination, like vague burning smells and the exhaust of traffic but they weren’t odorous to me though — the urban scents of my parents’ motherland. Across all the time and space from my last visit, I could almost fill in the vendors and cuisine and temples stuffing the city my parents grew up in. Pausing for a second, I closed my eyes and ears to take as much of it in as I could, as slightly damaging to my lungs it might be. These scents all blend together for me: a city whose smell I can still remember, the packed scents of Desi grocers’ wares, cooked until fragrant in an American restaurant’s kitchen, some served as prasad from the cupboard under the smoke of incense, all wafting through my house as an aroma I can’t ascertain because I grew up in it. They’re all wrapped in the scent of my family’s hugs. They smell like home.

MiC Columnist Saarthak Johri can be reached at