On my bathroom shelf sits a vial of essential oils. Popped open each morning, it lends a refreshing start to a new day. Charred sticks of palo santo have a home on my dresser and burning them seems to bring my flat to life, making it feel truly lived in. I rub a few droplets of rose hip oil over my hands and through my hair almost every evening, and it’s earthy scent that has become a sort of sleep signal—triggering my breath to soften, my heart to slow, my eyelids to sink.
Until rather recently, I had never given much thought to how these simple daily rituals—scent-focused routines—have become such an important part of my everyday life. But now, it feels blatantly obvious how much power a scent can hold. How easily it can transport you, how it can evoke feelings or memories so strong they can even bring you to tears, how it can play an essential role in promoting and sustaining mental wellbeing.
But there’s another type of “aromatherapy,” a much more personal, intense way to manipulate scent for pleasure. It doesn’t require any cold pressed oil concoctions or velvety flower petals plucked at the peak of their natural beauty—it’s simpler, more straightforward, and you’ve probably done it before: cooking.
Don’t get me wrong, swirling burning sage through your office or running a bottle of essential oil under your nose can be therapeutic, some would even say cleansing, but something different takes place when you get in the kitchen—you can set out to create something with a particularly positive scent association and spur a stronger emotional reaction (both in yourself, and potentially in others) than any visual stimuli could. Some only cook or bake for that final product, focused in on their taste associations, but whenever I find myself leaning over a bubbling crock of garlicky beans or checking in on a batch of cookies in the oven, it’s their sweet and savory smells that I savor most.
Just think of the earthy aromas of roasting potatoes with rosemary that bring you back to your grandmother harvesting fresh herbs in her garden; fragrant braised lamb with cinnamon and oranges that transports you to the summer you spent studying in Rabat, feasting on couscous and tagine with your host family; the incomparably warm smell of baking sourdough bread that reminds you of your favorite restaurant in San Francisco, the one where you celebrated your 18th birthday. Is there anything better? In my opinion, the answer is no—there’s nothing more fulfilling or more satisfying than using your own two hands to concoct intense perfumes that bring with them memories of days, years, times past.
So give yourself the time and space to rethink “aromatherapy” and really engage with the scent of your food the same way you would enjoy a candle permeate the room or following a trail of smoke from a burning stick of palo santo. See where it takes you and learn to harness that power for yourself. I sincerely doubt you’ll be disappointed.