‘I Smell You…’: Ethnic smells and olfactory assimilation


Japanese Breakfast

The first time I became aware of my ‘ethnic smell’ was when I was eight years old. As I sat down next to my best friend on the school bus one morning, she slammed both hands over her nose in disgust and sneered, ‘yuck, you smell like fish.’

Grilled fish for breakfast

I had just ingested a typical Japanese breakfast of rice, miso soup with bonito stock, and grilled salted mackerel. I realised then that I could hide the foods I eat, but not the way they make me smell.

The ‘smelly migrant’ is the most subversive of all migrants. Societies, including Australia, have ways of controlling the practice of other cultures, languages, customs or religions, but bodily odours just can’t be contained.

They ooze out of our pores as invisible particles, detected only by the odorant receptors in the nasal cavity. And by the time the receptors have signalled the brain’s olfactory cortex to register ‘yuck’, my immigrant bodily emissions have already penetrated your body, invaded you.

It’s no coincidence then that fear of ‘the other’ is often expressed as odour based slurs. Societies often denigrate the foods of newcomers as stinky and revolting. And in Medieval Europe, there was a common belief that Jewish bodies gave off an unpleasant stench, or foetor Judaicus.

If smelly bodies are subversive, so too are our reactions to them. After all, it’s virtually impossible to control our immediate responses to pungent odours. There’s also an anatomical explanation for this.

Other senses are seated in the neo-cortex or the higher brain, while the sensory recognition of odours is processed partly in the limbic system or the lower brain—the site of emotion and memory. So whatever is tickling the nose hairs has a direct line to the sub-verbal, animalistic self.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant categorised this perception of smell or olfaction as the most ignoble of senses, animalistic, ‘fleeting and transitory’, not worthy of cultivation and not easily defined. And it’s exactly the amorphous nature of smell that makes it so powerful, and political.

For when those odours that repel us are associated with race, the disgust we instinctively sense undermines our attempts to overcome racial prejudices.

But just as increased awareness of other cultural practices can help unravel prejudice, exposure to different ethnic culinary traditions that produce ethnic bodily smells can also temper those deep seated emotional reactions to the whiff of the unknown.

‘A lot of people are scared or uncomfortable with the unknown,’ explains Heather Jeong, a Korean cooking teacher. Her mission is to enlighten Australians on how to make and enjoy ‘robust, pungent Korean foods’ like kimchi. ‘Once they gain knowledge and understanding, they embrace it.’

Heather Jeong with her Kimchi fridge
Korean cooking teacher Heather Jeong with her home made kimchi and kimchi fridge

Certainly, Australians seem to revel in the culinary diversity that’s now on offer. Celebrity chefs are no longer mostly white, male and cook meat with stuff on the side, but hail from a variety of ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

In fact, I’ve experienced first hand the shift in attitudes to my food culture. As a child, I endured culinary bullying when friends turned their noses up at seaweed and raw fish. But today, some families eat more sushi than steak, and I’m constantly asked to share recipes.

But how much diversity do Australians really embrace? Dr Ruth De Souza, a researcher in health and cultural issues critiques the way Australians celebrate only select ethnic foods as symbols of our successful multiculturalism.

‘I know people who will go to an Indian restaurant and always order Butter Chicken, and won’t order anything else,’ claims De Souza, who has an Indian background.

Butter Chicken or Murgh Makhani is mild, not too spicy and doesn’t stink. It’s exotic, but not too exotic. It’s Indian, but not too Indian. Butter Chicken is tolerably ethnic.

But championing only the foods deemed tolerable by the dominant culture is to circumscribe what’s acceptably palatable multiculturalism. The effect is to reinforce a certain kind of ‘Australian-ness’ rather than inclusive diversity.

Simmered daikon with sweet Yuzu Miso; smells like a lousy fart, but nice…

So what would diversity smell like? Pretty rank I’d presume as it needs to include De Souza’s curried tongue sandwiches that she took to school as a child, as well as one of my favourite dishes—simmered fish head with daikon (white radish). Cooked daikon lingers like a lousy fart, so I’d never offer this to the uninitiated for fear of being met with disgust.

Distaste and disgust may seem like random reactions to malodourous concoctions. But they function in society to manage ‘ethnic excess’. Fish is okay, as long as it isn’t pungent, curry is nice as long as the spices don’t cling to the curtains, kimchi is healthy as long as the fermented garlic doesn’t linger on the train.

But for the migrant who feels displaced from their homeland, foods that olfactorily offend may play an important role in reinforcing identity, says researcher De Souza. She recounts how cooking and eating a beautiful curry is akin to ‘putting lotion on the part of me that feels dislocated, lonely, and isolated.‘ But that same curry can reek of spices that ultimately isolate her by making her olfactorily different, even invoking disgust.

The result is a kind of ethnic shame that further reinforces just how out of place a fragrant migrant body really is. In other words, what migrants ingest in order to maintain their identities in the host country can be the thing that viscerally sets them apart.

So is there such a thing as olfactory assimilation? Can kimchi breathing Koreans or cumin flavoured Indians ever be rendered acceptably odourless? If I vow to never again revel in my daikon burps, will I feel more Australian?

De Souza thinks not. In her view, attempting nutritional assimilation and sanitisation to become odourless rarely leads to a deeper, thicker sense of belonging. Like citizenship, that belonging feels ‘thin when compared to the affective power of ethnic identity,’ she claims.

Cooking teacher Heather Jeong also values the inclusive potential of aromatic diversity. She’s found herself in taxis with Indian drivers when the smell of curry ‘can be quite overpowering,’ she says.

‘But that’s not to say I want to tell him, you smell. That’s part of his culture,’ she explains. ‘It’s all about enrichment and I think we are wiser and richer to have all these different cultures.’

Whether we like it or not, ‘ethnic aromas’ are already colonising the public spaces that we frequent, like trams, buses, shops, offices, hallways, lifts.

What a delicious idea, to know that we can breath in ‘others’. Smell is so subversive.

Ethnic Smells
I eat a lot of fish…can you smell me???

A short audio feature I Smell You… will be broadcast on ABC RN’s Life Matters program on Thursday, September 14th and will be available for download or streaming here after the broadcast

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