Our garden always mesmerises me with an array of flowers and herbs. One of the most familiar smells is the narcotic sweet scent of jasmine sambac (Jasminum sambac) at dusk. But as the evening breeze blows, it brings also the fruity, ylang-ylang-like aroma of karawek or climbing ylang ylang (Artabotrys siamensis)* from the neighbour’s. These two fragrant floras have long been used in Thai perfumery and cuisine. My mother, as I recall, would extract their essences for the traditional desserts. So, when I chanced upon these blooms, I felt inspired to share a simple infusion that she would often make.
The recipe is fairly straightforward, but there are some tricks to getting it right. Knowing when to pick requires careful observation. The flowers should be collected when they are most fragrant, which is at dusk. The jasmine sambacs can be picked even when they have not opened; these unopened flowers will eventually bloom and release their scent overnight. But only the ripe yellow karaweks, which are fragrant, should be picked. And each of the six petals should be separated from the calyx.
The flowers are quickly rinsed before being gently placed in a bowl of water. The water is allowed to absorb the scents overnight. Care should be taken not to cause disturbance because the flowers would otherwise become ‘bruised’ and the infusion would acquire a sharp vegetal note of crushed leaves. The spent flowers are removed and the process is repeated once more with a new set of flowers to saturate the infusion with their perfume.
One can use this infusion for a number of purposes. My mother often uses it to make a syrup, and the aroma still lingers on even after the infusion is boiled with sugar. One can also include other fragrant flowers for a complete water-based eau de cologne. I, on the other hand, simply use it to spike a glass of chilled water. It makes for a refreshing beverage with a pleasant lingering after-taste. But be warned: it is potent, and a tablespoon suffices to perfume a whole jug of water.
A note on classification*: The family Annonaceae includes the classical ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) used in perfumery and other plants with similarly strongly fragrant flowers. Karawek (Artabotrys siamensis) belongs to the Artabotrys genus of this family, which explains why it shares some olfactory characteristics with ylang ylang.