Tresna Lee speaks the language of scent. As founder of Kin North, she sources from a family of third-generation incense artisans who blend traditional Japanese methods with French-inspired fragrances. And as proprietor of soon-to-be-opened Gemini – a combination wine bar and sensory salon in Melbourne’s north – she’s all about welcoming guests to learn the history and rituals of incense while knocking back a few drinks and some food.
Pairing incense with food and wine may sound unconventional, but Lee says it’s more common than you think. “Michelin-starred restaurants have been using scent this way for a while, because they know that we’re multi-sensory beings, and each sense has the ability to influence how we perceive other senses in that moment.”
Think of a cup of coffee, which can taste different if drunk from a ceramic mug, a glass or a paper cup. Incense works the same way, only more intensely. “Scent connects us to a very primal part of ourselves,” Lee says. “It’s the first fully formed sense that humans develop, and it’s why smells are closely linked to nostalgic feelings – both good and bad. We can communicate a lot, quite deeply and quickly, when we layer with scent.”
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Whether you’re looking to communicate a lot, or just wanting to enhance the taste of your home cooking, it’s all possible with a stick, a lighter, and a little forethought. Here are Lee’s tips for creating the perfect sensory experience with food, drink and scent.
Say no to nag champa
The first thing you’ll want to do is get your hands on some quality incense. We’ll talk about specific scents later, but for now the important thing is to get your head around the different styles of incense and how they vary. In short, you want to avoid anything big and smoky, which tends to be made from sticks dipped in essential oils. (They also, as it happens, tend to be pretty cheap.)
“My parents always thought I was burning down my bedroom,” Lee says of her early teenage experiences with incense, “because they just have so much smoke. But when I first encountered Japanese incense, it was a revelation. It’s made differently – out of dough, a bit like handmade pasta – and it’s so light and subtle. The smoke carries the scent rather than just being a by-product of burning fragrance.”
Choose your hardware
Remember how scent affects the other senses? The way things look can affect scent as well, Lee says. Following that logic, you’ll want to make sure you’re sticking your fancy incense in things befitting its stature. “I love incense vessels that are both practical and beautiful. A beautiful incense holder acts like a sculpture when it’s not in use, and catches the small amount of ash when it is.”
You’ll also want to think about what you’re using to light your incense. “Forget the pink plastic Bic and get something that feels special,” she says. “It’s about enjoying the whole process, not just making your house smell great.”
Pick your moment
There are two ways to use pairings, Lee says. The first is a way to “cultivate a relaxing daily ritual” and the second is for when you want to “enhance the sensory experience of a meal or dinner party”.
Try starting your day with the first type, Lee says. “Every morning I burn a stick of incense when I’m brewing coffee or tea. It helps to set the scene for the day and reminds me to slow down a little bit and tune into my senses.” You can also perform a similar ritual throughout the day when you’re looking to transition into a new work task or moment.
Which scent to reach for? Lee goes for invigorating fragrances with her morning cuppa, favouring the Kin North Bloom blend, which mixes bergamot, juniper, mint, lime, tonka and frankincense. In the afternoon, she will pair a cold citrus-based drink with something similarly fresh – sandalwood, for instance, blended with more floral notes. “Then as I transition into the evening I’ll burn something cosy” – maybe a fragrant cedar or cinnamon blend – “while making myself an aperitif before dinner”.
Set the scene
When it comes to mealtime and dinner parties, treat scent as just another of the sensory layers that hosts often play with. “You’ll make sure the music, lighting, drink selection and tableware suits the theme,” Lee explains, “and you can pick your scent choice, too.”
Scents, like food, should be seasonal. “Imagine a winter evening supper with a handful of close friends – huge charcuterie and cheese board, bottles of decanted red wine, an open fire burning, the lights turned low, jazz on the record player.” The only way to top this? “Have a cosy woody scent burning in the entrance hallway, so it’s the first thing your guests smell as they walk through the door and you’ll prime them for an evening of cosy conversation.”
In summertime you might be thinking of tacos and a round of Margaritas. “An energetic scent, with notes of citrus or spice, is what I’d reach for. I’d place it in not-so-obvious places like in the bathroom or on a garden ledge for a sensory surprise every now and then.”
When it comes to pairings, there are two things to consider: weight and notes.
Weight is about making sure your scent is balanced with the meal and isn’t going to overpower it or get subsumed by it. “Similar to the way we think about pairing a heavy wine with a heavier dish, or a lighter wine with something delicate,” Lee says.
Notes are about what’s actually in the incense. High-quality incense sticks often contain ingredients you might cook or garnish with, such as cinnamon, thyme, orange, mint, rosemary, osmanthus or juniper. Pair incense with a dish that has those same ingredients – “or look to the overall scent profile to guide you”. Lee says to try a sweeter incense with a creamy dessert, a sweet and spicy incense with baked goods, or an earthy herbal incense with baked root vegetables.
As for drinks, Lee recommends pairing a gin Martini with something floral – and avoiding spice. “Gin has juniper and bergamot in it, which are both very clean, so you want to match them with something floral, like wisteria, or other incenses that also have juniper or bergamot in them.” By the same logic, a peaty whisky is going to pair well with something woodsy, like sandalwood or cedar.
And though it’s true that opposites sometimes attract, you’ll find more success in playing it safe. “I wouldn’t pair a salad with a cosy, vanilla scent, or something with cinnamon,” she says. “That’d go better with a pastry.”
Don’t let your scents compete
When you’re working with food and drink, you want to leave enough space for them to sing – especially if you’ll be adding incense to the mix. The trick, Lee says, is to minimise the other scents you add to the chorus. “I remember being told off when I went to a coffee cupping about a decade ago because I was wearing a really strong perfume. And that makes sense. You don’t want to create distractions.”
Another thing to avoid is overcrowding. Give your incense some space, Lee says. “We have a coffee incense – a nod to Melbourne’s cafe scene – and it smells great when you burn it while brewing a cup. But you don’t want it to burn too close to where you’re brewing, because it will overwhelm the coffee. With incense, you just want to add a note.”
Pace your evening
“You can light different incenses to signal different feelings throughout a dinner party,” Lee says. Cosy smells, for instance, can help put a cap on an evening. “If dinner is wrapping up, I might put on some mimosa as a bit of a nightcap, or something woodsy. I’m not going to burn wisteria, which is fresher and more uplifting, and better for the start of your evening.”
Cleanse your palate
You’ve started your night off with some breezier scents, transitioned to something heavier during the main course, and now you’re thinking about what to pair with dessert. Before you do, consider giving your senses a bit of a refresh. “Your nostrils are like tastebuds,” Lee says. “They can get overwhelmed by anything too cloying.”
For an olfactory reset, light an incense stick with a bit of spiciness to it: ideally one with carrot seed oil or agarwood. “There’s one called Love Carrot that navigates the line between being uplifting and relaxing,” Lee says, “and it works great as a palate cleanser when you’ve been smelling a lot of incense. It really just cuts through the environment.”