Fighting Secondhand Smell: Desi Food and the Struggle to Smell Nice

So, dear readers, you have come to expect certain things when you visit my blog column. A certain amount of coherency. A certain level of restraint. A certain expectation of Islamic advice and righteous talk and yada yada yada. In a way, this blog column and I have become… predictable.

Now, we can’t have that. Today, I go on a rant.

Desi food is awesome. Can’t no one say nothin’ bad ‘bout Bombay Biryani. Or slightly charred Seekh Kabab, spicy and sizzling. Or just some good ol’ Chicken Khorma, tender chicken marinated in spicy stew. (All of which is making my stomach rumble, and all of which can be super unhealthy, but that’s another rant for another day.) This food is great as we chow down, its smell making our mouths water as it rises off the plate. But the Secondhand Smell, that which lingers on clothes and bodies long afterwards, is terrible.

The stereotype other Americans have about “Indians,” meaning Desi people, is that we smell bad. Our food, with its unusually strong aromas, is likely the source of this stereotype. All too often, this stereotype is proven true because brothers don’t deal with the lingering smell properly. We get it, you had a bucket of Nihari at home for lunch, but your co-workers and classmates don’t need to be “experiencing” it for the rest of the day off of you. Many of our Saaluns and other food dishes leave a strong odor on our clothes and bodies. The Sahabi Mus’ab ibn Umayr was famous for leaving a trail of scent from his amazing ‘itr, such that people could tell he had walked by, hours after he was in a certain place. I think a lot of brothers are imitating him, but with the smell of Desi food instead. It’s, uh, not the same, guys.

This is terrible da’wah. Our Messenger salAllahu ‘alayhi wassalam always smelled nice, and taught us to be the same. If a person eats garlic, i.e. smells bad, it is better for him to avoid the masjid. Even with the importance of salah in Jama’ah in this deen, that some scholars held the opinion that it was mandatory. How will anyone pay attention to the message of Tawheed you’re presumably conveying (everyone’s still in da’wah mode right now, right? IAW was only a couple weeks ago and the final Da’wah Table is next week, Insha’Allah! ) when they can’t stand to be within ten feet of you?

Muslims have been known in history for being clean, and therefore, pleasant-smelling people. Our ritual ablutions, the Wudu and the Ghusl, are intended to remove spiritual impurity, but have the pleasant side effects of leaving us pretty clean physically, too. There was once a time when the kings and queens of Europe considered it sufficient to bathe once every few months, and Muslim peasants washed themselves multiple times daily. What a way we have come! It’s disgraceful.

The problem is: making Desi food, eating Desi food, just having Desi food around, leaves us in danger.

I reached out to my friends, to see how they dealt with this scourge, and there were mixed responses. Some guys were fatalistic, declaring that “You don’t [deal with it].” They advised, “Embrace it. You’re fighting a losing battle.” But I refuse to accept that. Others gave cautious advice, learned after many years battling the lingering odor of Desi food. There are practical steps, both from my own experiences and from the responses of friends, which we can take to overcome Secondhand Smell.

  1. Protecting Your Clothes. Smell lingers long on clothes and sticks to them, so they need to be exposed to Desi food as little as possible. Keep your clothes in a tightly closed closet, in a room far away from the kitchen/dining space. A friend of mine even set up his wardrobe in the sun room of his house, a room that was practically outside the house. By no means should you leave your coat in the kitchen. In fact, it is probably best to change out of any set of clothes you value as soon as you get home and place in the aforementioned closet. Eat your nicely cooked, delicious Desi dinner in some comfortable clothes that you don’t plan on wearing anywhere but inside the house.
  2. Ventilation. Desi food smells tend to linger. Don’t encourage them. The best option is to have a range hood on your stove to immediately remove the smell of cooking food, but not everyone has one. When cooking, try to leave some windows open, or even doors. This might be difficult in the winter, but there is no excuse in the spring and summer. Scented candles do wonders for dispersing the smell, so have a few lit around the house when cooking something particularly strong-smelling.
  3. Personal hygiene. Take the initiative in keeping yourself clean and fresh-smelling. Before you leave the house, shower, and then dress and exit the Desi environment as quickly as possible. Keep deodorant with you when outside the house, in the car or in your bag. While it can be obnoxious to drown yourself in Axe or Old Spice, the smell of Desi food is more obnoxious still. We have to choose the better of two evils. Use deodorant or cologne to suppress lingering odors. Try having multiple layers of good scent, you have plenty of options- body wash, deodorant sticks, deodorant sprays, cologne, ‘itr.

What are some ways you deal with bad food odors? This is definitely a Desi problem, but this advice goes for other cultures and their strong-smelling food, as well. Leave a comment with your advice or Desi-food stories below.


9 Comments Add yours

  1. MJC says:

    This isnt a problem that often, but when it does happen, its a problem.


  2. Brother/Sister in Islam says:

    I think it’s less of a problem as you get older because people learn how to shower and wear deodarant so they don’t sweat out that leftover onion mirchi smell, na mean? Beware of Indian bazaar


  3. Anonymous says:

    Leave a febreze bottle in your car. You are more likely to smell “it” as soon as you leave the house. Backpacks/purses included.

    Desi smell doesnt come out of wool coats. Not even with febreze.


    1. muadhkhan says:

      Gotta love Febreze, amazing scent, it’s like crack yo.


  4. Reems says:

    This is my 2 cents worth:
    -food smell lingers the most in the hair, so I wrap my head in a scarf when cooking
    -have a totally separate set of clothes for cooking, hang them in the laundry after cooking or pop them in the washing machine until needed again.
    -as soon as the food is cooked, decant it in Tupperware with a lid. Do not leave uncovered food on the stove or counter.
    -lastly to get rid of the ‘curry’ smell in the house, the ONLY thing that’s effective is incense a.k.a. ‘Agarbati’…trust me it works! Also get the strongest selling one from the asian stores & burn one in every room of the house as well as the kitchen, while cooking…

    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. muadhkhan says:

      Never have an issue with hair as a guy, didn’t realize this was a thing for sisters, so this was a good perspective to have. Good tips, jAk.


  5. Desi girl says:

    A lot of good tips mentioned in this article! I also wanted to mention that if you put one of those window fans in your kitchen window, it helps circulate the air better to get rid of the smell. I also agree that keeping a bottle of itr/cologne/perfume in the car is a good idea so you can try to mask any odors atleast when you’re out.


    1. muadhkhan says:

      Circulation is pretty key I’m thinking. jAk


  6. Anonymous says:

    It is not only the odor that comes from the food but the odor from sweat that reeks with that foodie/spicy smell after the food is metabolized in the body.The culprit is curry, fenugreek and cumin spices. Even after taking all the aforementioned precautions that smell still lingers. Recommendations: chew on parsley after these meals, brush and floss and above all drink lots of water. Bon appetit.


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