Perfumery inspired by Malay culture is being revived by a woman with a nose and taste for tradition, writes Meera Murugesan
AS a child, Fazzillah Noordin spent endless hours in the homes of her maternal and paternal grandparents. Both had tropical gardens in full bloom with exotic, colourful flowers and lush greenery that Fazzillah and her sister found hugely exciting.
She would often play masak-masak, “cooking” the flowers in a pot of water. This early exposure led to her love of natural garden scents. However, her foray into perfumery only began seriously when she attended an artisan chocolate making class conducted by a chemist who connected the dots between flavour and fragrance.
An interest was sparked and she first started an aromatherapy based skincare company but while taking a break to pursue her masters degree, her interest in fragrances developed further.
“At that time, I wanted to improve my English so I would buy sample size fragrances and try to write a description of each one. Eventually, I realised I could not find a scent that reminded me of my childhood,” says Fazillah, who runs Malay Perfumery, an artisan fragrance house specialising in the scents of the Malay archipelago but using French perfumery techniques.
She started to research extensively into the art of perfumery and realised that while fragrances have always been an integral part of the Malay cultural identity, they have slowly lost their place, unlike traditional Malay flavours which continue to dominate our plethora of foods.
“Fragrances have always been part of everyday life for the Malays, whether for weddings, funerals or just daily living.”
It used to be the most natural thing for women to pluck some pandan leaves, for example, and tuck them into drawers or cupboards to give a pleasant scent and ward off pests. And traditionally, the Malays would use whatever was available in the garden to scent their homes or to mark weddings and other festivities.
Fazzillah says these ingredients would include flowers like jasmine, cempaka (magnolia), kenanga (ylang ylang) and rose as well as ingredients like lime (limau purut), ginger and sandalwood.
“It was once part of everyday life but today, if you ask someone about bunga rampai for example, only 30 to 40 per cent or less would know how to make it; it’s such an integral part of the Malay way of life.”
Bunga rampai is a fragrant concoction made of finely shredded pandan leaves mixed with selected flowers which is usually prepared for special occasions like weddings and engagements.
Fazzillah who makes perfumes inspired by traditional Malay scents says fragrances have the power to evoke feelings of love, happiness and comfort, especially if we can relate those scents to our earliest memories.
The very first fragrance she came up with was Fleur de Rampai, inspired by the traditional bunga rampai. She wanted to create a fragrance that would evoke memories of family love, weddings and togetherness.
Fleur de Rampai uses pandan leaves, patchouli and jasmine and there are also some facets of rose in it. All her fragrances have names which evoke the rich culture and history of the Malays, such as Mahsuri, Mendam Berahi and Teja.
Teja is a very regal scent while Mendam Berahi, named after the famous ship during the glory days of the Malacca Sultanate, evokes the fresh smell of the sea.
To stay true to her inspiration, Fazzillah tries as much as possible to source for ingredients locally or regionally, making use of a wide variety of local flowers including pink, white and red frangipani, lillies, roses and jasmine, but in certain instances, this may not be possible.
“Sometimes it’s not possible to use only 100 per cent local ingredients. There may be a need to use other materials to support these local ingredients to ensure the best outcome.”
A FINE ART
Just coming up with the inspiration for a particular scent can take around two months while the formulation and testing period is much longer.
Fazzillah says perfumery is a fine art and often a process of tweaking and changing the formulation to find that perfect balance or blend of ingredients. She never went for formal training in perfumery. Everything she knows, she learnt by trial and error. But she has good olfactory memory — the ability to recollect (and identify) smells or scents. People who have this ability can usually distinguish even subtle differences in scents, such as the difference between the fragrance of the white, pink and red frangipani or how an orange smells differently from a lime. Both are citrus fruits but their scents vary.
“It’s something that everyone can be trained in, you don’t have to have a special nose or something and the more you are exposed to scents, the larger your olfactory memory.”
That, and knowing a little bit of chemistry certainly helps, she adds.
All her formulations are done at her home. This year, after she started to market her products on social media, more people have become interested and she has had to speed up production.
Many customers find the fragrances novel and appealing because they remind them of familiar scents from their childhood, unlike other brands in the market. Last year Fazzillah only came up with three scents but this year, she has already done seven and those are just the official ones. She still has four or five which has not been released and also bespoke fragrances.
Her bespoke fragrances are for those customers who want something even more special or personal and are willing to pay for it. “Some people ask if I can make something inspired by their mother and they tell me the whole story about her and I try to come up with a fragrance that embodies those qualities.”
There are also customers who place orders for bespoke fragrances to be given away as wedding favours.
Fazzillah doesn’t compromise on the quality of her ingredients or her packaging because she realises that fragrances should evoke a complete sensorial experience. She uses only high quality French glass bottles for her perfumes and they come packed in beautiful custom-made Tenun Pahang boxes.
“I want to remind people of what we once had and to bring back that beautiful culture of fragrance.”
For more information, go to www.malayperfumerie.com
AN ANCIENT TRADITION
FRAGRANCES have been used in everyday life since the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Egyptian women born into nobility were said to have elaborate bathing rituals which included scented oils and massages using aromatic oils. They would even place perfumed wax cones on their heads which would gradually melt and drench them in perfume throughout the day.
And Cleopetra, the legendary Egyptian queen, was famous for her love of fragrances. She even had a perfumed ship made of fragrant cedarwood and sails scented with cyprinum (a perfume made of henna flowers) and adorned with roses, her favourite flower.
The ancient Greeks also used fragrant oils before and after bathing and young maidens would often adorn themselves with white lillies. Exotic perfumes from Arabia were also brought back to Greece by Alexander the Great.
The Romans, meanwhile, were captivated by roses — they filled fountains with rose water and stuffed pillows with rose petals for a fragrant, restful sleep.
For some famous names in history, like Louis XIV of France, also known as the Sun King, fragrances were essential. He was said to have ordered his shirts to be only washed in scented water and famously required a new fragrance to be created for him every day. He even had table fountains which shot jets of orange flower water into the air.
The Mughals of India, meanwhile, cultivated fragrant gardens so they could enjoy evenings in their courtyards while being constantly refreshed by sweet smells. They were also famous for traditional perfumes made from natural oils, petals and herbs.
The burning of incense and aromatic herbs is also a traditional cultural practice among Indians and Chinese.
Sources: Long History of Perfume — thoughtco.com
The Bath and Body Book — Stephanie Donaldson
SCENTS FOR YOUR HOME
WANT to bring some fresh smells into your home? A tropical garden is the best place to experience the scents of the east. Here are some local flowers which will invite fragrances into your home. They are easy to grow too:
Rangoon Creeper/Akar Dani
Harum Sundal Malam
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