As with Proust’s madeleine, we all know from our own experiences that smell is strongly related to memory. It can harshly trigger our personal memories, whether they are pleasant to us or not.
Tokyo, where I spent most of my time in my 20s, is filled with a lot of smells. My memory of Tokyo is engraved with smells and, in particular, the smells of soba noodles and its dipping sauce, called soba-tsuyu. Soba-tsuyu is made of dark soy sauce, sugar, mirin (sweetened sake) and dashi stock, which is a kind of soup and cooking stock. It is this fish stock that makes the dipping sauce savory and its distinctive smell is fundamental to Japanese cooking.
Japanese fast food, soba noodles and its dipping sauce, soba-tsuyu
Since the 17th century, soba noodles have become one of the most popular fast foods in Tokyo. Today, soba noodles are sold at numerous food stands and even at the coolest wine bars. I used to have soba noodles at a food stand in my office building. Being far from slow life, I was always busy editing my articles and I had to finish my meal as quickly as possible. My desk was on the 32nd floor, and I used to go to the 36th floor to have an easy and quick lunch or dinner, as it was the food stand closest to me. I was always eating alone, looking vacantly out of the window with the whole city of Tokyo below my eyes. There was something cheap about the smell of the soba-tsuyu and nothing exciting about it. Nonetheless, I kept on having it almost everyday, as that was part of my routine and somehow I could make myself confortable for a little while.
After four months of my new student life in Italy, I went home during the Easter holiday. When my mother opened the door, I noticed the smell of dashi floating all around my house. It was a dipping sauce for tempura, which has the same ingredients as soba-tsuyu but is made with different ratio of the mixtures. It has a similar but different smell. I was euphoric but soothed at the same time. I was speechless.
Unfortunately, or not, I hardly have the chance to experience these Japanese smells here in Italy. Consequently, I do not often look back on my hectic life in Tokyo nor think of my sweet family, as nothing reminds me of them. Now, I smell coffee and brioche from the bar downstairs. At the market on Friday morning, I am mesmerized by the smell of ripe summer fruits. I have no idea if I will be able to stay longer in Italy or not, so all I can do is to breath deeply and capture all the possible smells of Italy, because I know that smells are more eloquent than pictures. As I inhale such an Italian air, I appreciate my life in Italy but I sometimes remember the distance from my country at the same time. After such a perplexing moment, I strongly realize that I am totally a stranger here and I am full of sheer Japanese spirit.