The world of incense can be intimidating for first time browsers. After all, when we first get started with fragrances, it’s often difficult to distinguish one from the other – let alone articulate those differences in a way that other people can understand. For this reason, we often end up simply browsing until we stumble upon a fragrance we like.
Fortunately, many of the fragrances found in incense will be familiar to westerners, thanks to the spread of cuisine from east to west. In this article, we’ll provide you with a brief glossary of the different sorts of incense fragrances available – some may ring a bell; others may be entirely novel.
Of course, nearly everyone in Britain will be familiar with the word ‘masala’ when it comes to food. But the term actually refers to a mixture of spices. There are many, many different sorts of masalas – from Garam Masala to Chinese five-spice to Ras al Hanout. Some masalas are used in cooking; others are used in aromatics. Some are used in both.
Dhoop is a special sort of incense, consumed principally as part of Hindu religious rites. Dhoop is an extruded incense, meaning that it lacks a bamboo stick. It has a strong scent and gives off a great deal of pleasant-smelling smoke when burned.
Nag champa is a popular Indian fragrance which comprises sandalwood and the champak flower – or, more specifically, the resin from the Michelia champaca tree, which is found in India. Its flower is bright orange.
The term Chandanam refers to a paste used in Hindu ceremonies, principally derived from Sandalwood and mixed with a variety of other fragrances. Traditionally, the paste would be created by a priest, who would grind the wood by hand on a purpose-built granite slab. With the addition of a little water, a thick paste called kalabham can be created. The kalabham can be blended with saffron and other such fragrances in order to create chandanam, the aromatic red paste which is popular in India and Nepal.
Here we have another word with which we’re all familiar. Frankincense, or olibanum, is an aromatic resin which is incorporated into a number of different incenses and perfumes. It’s found in the bark of certain flowering plants native to Asia and Africa. This fragrance is thought to be a relaxant, which help to promote feelings of calm, peace and contentment. If your life is proving stressful, or you find yourself constantly conflicting with those around you (and yourself), then Frankincense is the perfect remedy. Contrary to the story, frankincense makes a poor gift for new-born children – who are probably not in the best position to be burning incense.
Here is another name with which most of us are familiar. Like Frankincense, Myrrh is derived from a resin found in the bark of trees native to Africa. It is intensely aromatic and comes naturally in the form of a gum. It can be ingested by mixing it with wine. As one might expect, Myrrh is associated with all things heavenly – most prominently the sun – and has been appropriated by a number of Christian churches in rituals. It is used in funerals throughout the world.
Ginger is a large flowing plant, which can grow up to a metre tall, whose root is used often in a wide variety of Asian cuisine. The root can also be reduced to a pump and dried to form a powder which is often used in creating incense. It has a fiery, distinctive aroma and so is often associated with passion and lust. It’s therefore thought to be a desirable smell if you’re having company over.
Jasmine is a genus of flowering vines which is part of the olive family, which in Northern India is commonly known as mogra. It’s a popular fragrance in incense and is associated with both the night and with love, which makes it ideal for situations where such things are required!
Vanilla is a genus of orchid, from which the flavour termed ‘vanilla’ is derived. The flavour in question comes from the fruit of the flower. Growing Vanilla is extremely-labour intensive and so the spice is second only to Saffron in terms of cost. But it’s worth it when you have the smell in your house! When burned, Vanilla has a light, sweet smell associated with air. This makes it ideal for those moments which require clarity of thought – or where you feel as though your mind is a little cluttered.