Essence of jasmine: fragrant memories of childhood, love, and comfort

Palisa Anderson
Essence of jasmine: fragrant memories of childhood, love, and comfort. Used in many Thai desserts, woven into leis and offered up in prayers, jasmine sambac is easily used in a heavenly sweet scented beverage

It took us two years to find our house. I wasn’t looking for a house so much as I was looking for space to liberate the roots of all the potted fruit trees, vegetables and herbs I had accumulated which moved from rental house to rental house with us. They certainly outnumbered our boxes of possessions which were mainly made up of books on plants.

We found the perfect block in the neighbourhood that I grew up in, it was only slightly sloping and had water tanks. I must be the only person naive enough to favour and choose real estate based on the existing water tanks on a property.

Anyway, our grand plan was to do away with all the old plants in the garden that had no culinary use and replant a food forest and have chickens.

Goodbye azaleas and hydrangeas, so long arum lilies and camellias!

In went multiple varieties of citrus, peaches and plumcots, subtropical fruit trees like Rollinias and Grumichama and various guavas along with all the perennial herbs that I scoured from plant catalogues and cuttings from friend’s gardens. I spent an inordinate amount of time obsessing over varieties of rosemary and thyme, in the end I decided to plant all of them.

I did feel conflicted about pulling out the existing roses but gosh, they had been sprayed so much and had aphids all over them so out they went too. As a compromise I replanted in their place Damask rose, widely used culinarily and cosmetically.

Related: Lemongrass: an integral aromatic with some furry grey fans | Palisa Anderson

One morning during a 5am Flemington market run for the restaurants I met Peter, a grower at the Sydney flower markets, he has grown exotic shrubs and trees for the markets for over 20 years. I spied Jasminum sambac – not one cultivar but many, like my favourite the double petal Grand Duke of Tuscany resembling an old fashioned rose crossed with a gardenia. I had seen them before in other gardens in Australia but they are still quite rare, often the other gardens would be owned by other south-east Asian families.

In Thai it is simply known as Mali, my aunt’s name was Mali and she adored flowers and plants. My association to this bloom is admittedly personal, but isn’t that most synergistic relationship that we have with nature?

Mali is the flower you will see in temples, woven into leis and offered up with prayers. Mali is the flower given on Thai Mother’s day and the national flower of Indonesia. An abundance of blooms floated in clay drinking water urns are placed in front of homes traditionally to be scooped out with a dried coconut ladle onto small cool pewter cups to serve to guest on arrival, offered as a sign of respect and generosity.

It is also the jasmine referred to in the fragrant jasmine rice, which unlike jasmine tea it has no actual jasmine in it, however if you’ve ever been near a pot of it cooking - the aroma of it wafting into your olfactory senses will remind you of walking past a garden full of Mali at dusk.

Science has isolated the fragrance to the presence of the chemical compound 2-Acetyl-1-pyrroline, no surprise then that it is also present in Jasmine sambac cultivars and also pandan! And edamame! Which blew my mind because I remember my first garden edamame harvest and thinking that it smelled so distinctly like Jasmine sambac and pandan, which was confusing as they were not yet in bloom, neither had the pandan been cut which is the way to release the fragrance. As it turns out, many plants contain this compound, though most associated with Jasmine sambac due to it’s high presence.

Perhaps that is why Thai and south-east Asian desserts are so compelling, so many desserts are literally steeped in Jasmine sambac syrup which trigger other food memoriesthat are intertwined with childhood, love and comfort.

It is now quite common to see synthetic essences of jasmine(like vanilla essence) being used to make Thai desserts – it is very easy to source at most Asian grocery stores. What a shame though – steeping the flowers in simple syrup overnight has a far more alluring effect and is easy enough to do if you have a plant. They are prolific in season and new blossoms appear daily, and they can be pruned into a bush or can be trained onto trellising.

I felt very justified walking away from my first encounter with Peter at Flemington markets with not one but 10 Grand Duke of Tuscany Jasminum sambacs … after all they are edible too.

Nahm hom Mali Jasmine Water

Filter water into a jug or jar and float 3-5 rinsed Jasmine sambac blooms on top and refrigerate for a couple of hours. Every time you come to have a drink, top up with more water and after a day or so you might notice that the petals will become translucent which is an indication that it is time to go and gather new blooms.

You will end up with a heavenly sweet scented beverage that is sugar free, refreshing and utterly delicious. Serve it to your guests and watch their reaction, I bet they ask for another glass.