Yusuf Bhai or Yusuf Madappen
Yusuf Madappen, known as 'Yusuf Bhai' is popular in Deira for his ability to recreate any scent presented to him. Now, people from around the world are coming to the perfumer. Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

Every morning, 55-year-old Yusuf Madappen puts on his signature fedora hat before heading to work. But right before he puts it on, he gives it a generous spritz of perfume. The perfume is not any other fragrance for Madappen. It is the perfume he recreated to mimic the scent of his father.

Popularly known as ‘Yusuf Bhai’ across the streets of Deira, where his perfume stores are located, he is not only a business owner but a local celebrity.

His journey as a perfumer started when he came to Dubai after working as a photographer in Qatar. He decided to join his brother’s perfume business in Deira, which dealt with selling branded perfumes. Soon after, Madappen decided to launch his own UAE-based brand and offer a “perfume bar” where customers could come in and customise perfumes.

Calling himself a “doctor of fragrance”, the Indian expat who has been in the UAE for 26 years, has made a name for himself for his unique ability to recreate any fragrance just by smelling something. So much so that people from across the UAE and the world have come to him to recreate perfumes.

His shops are lined with bottles filled with different fragrances ready to be mixed. Besides the usual citruses and sweet scents, one will also find karak chai, milk, chocolate, butter, and more.

Memories of loved ones and scents

Now, many come to him to recreate their favourite perfumes that might be discontinued or they are unable to find. But the type of scents Madappen gets the most joy from recreating, are the scents that remind people of their loved ones.

Sharing an instance, Madappen said: “It started with a woman who came all the way from Mauritius and handed me a small bottle with residue of perfume in it. It had no name on it. She said that the country’s royal family gave it to her grandpa who handed it down to her and she wanted me to recreate it, to remember him.”

That moment when you see a tear in someone’s eye because they smelt their loved one in the perfume I gave them. Bringing someone a memory is the best success.

- Yusuf Madappen, perfumer based in Dubai

And that was not the end of people coming in to be able to once again smell a scent they related to their loved ones. “A woman from India came with her husband’s perfume, who had died. She was so possessive about the perfume that she didn’t even want me to keep it with me. I convinced her to give it to me for two days and I recreated a perfume as close as I could and when she got it, she cried.”

Explaining that it is not always possible to recreate a perfume exactly how it once was, he said: “As in the case of the perfume this Indian woman got me, sometimes what happens is that when a perfume is kept for more than 10 years, the alcohol kills the perfume. So it gets even more difficult to recreate [it] close to the original. I sit with my brother and son and we all put our minds, and noses, together to work on it.”

Talking about what success means to him, he said: “That moment when you see a tear in someone’s eye because they smelt their loved one in the perfume I gave them. Bringing someone a memory is the best success.”

Sweet smells of childhood

For Madappen, too, it’s the scents of his childhood that help him reminiscence.

Young Madappen was hyperaware of the sweet scents of his surroundings. Born in the Indian state of Kerala, as a child, he ran around his town encountering fruity notes of mangos and pineapples that grew nearby and sweet, floral, hints of jasmine flowers from his mother’s garden. “Till this day, when I come across a kannimanga (or baby mango) I remember my home,” he said.

Madappen hails from the coastal town of Chavakkad in Thrissur city, where his father worked at the fish market.

Yusuf Madappen
Madappen remembers his childhood through the sweet scents of his hometown in Kerala and the perfume his parents wore. At his store, he tries to recreate similar memories for his customers. Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/ Gulf News

“I was born and raised at the beach and my father worked at the fish market. I still remember the scent of the ocean. My father used to come back from the market and use a lot of perfume to mask the scent, maybe that’s where I got the habit of applying perfume,” he said.

“I remember my father’s strong aftershave and my mother smelling of sandalwood as she dipped sandal chips in the water and used it to bathe. But even without artificial perfumes, every human has a unique smell,” he added.

Art of mixing perfume

Whether it’s a scent he is recreating or simply experimenting with a new perfume for his brand, Madappen shared the different elements a perfume contains and the skill that goes into creating one.

“When you first spray a perfume you immediately smell the alcohol content. Then comes the top note, for example. something fresh like lime or bergamot, which stays for five to 15 minutes. Then comes the middle note, such as leather or musk, which you can smell for 20 minutes up to an hour after spraying. Lastly, you smell the base note, for example, vanilla, and that stays for the rest of the period.”

Yusuf Bhai perfume shop
Bottles of single-note scents at Madappen's store. From the scent of bananas, and almonds to karak chai and sugar, virtually any scent can be found here. Image Credit: Falah Gulzar/Gulf News

Notes at the top of the perfume have higher volatility, meaning they evaporate faster, while notes at the bottom are longer lasting.

Now, at his shop, he follows a method when creating perfume for someone. “I ask what kind of scents a person likes, fresh, sweet, floral or musky, and then go from there. I even ask them to name a couple of their favourite scents and take inspiration,” he said.

Madappen learnt how to mix and identify scents working at his brother’s shop. He believes that his expertise comes from practice and exposure to different kinds of perfumes and people can develop a similar skill.

Sense of smell and its power

Dan Ohtan Wang is a professor of biology at New York University Abu Dhabi and she spoke to Gulf News about what goes into a person’s ability to smell and whether it can be refined.

“Genetic factors and practice both influence our capability of distinguishing odours. We, humans, are relatively weak smellers in the animal kingdom with 100 times fewer receptors in our detecting areas (olfactory epithelium) than dogs. But even so, for certain odorants, a few molecules in the airflow during sniffing are sufficient for accurate detection,” said.

Smell is an important cue for animals to avoid danger, such as spoiled food or fire smoke, and communicate, when marking territories, detecting pheromones, or identifying individuals, thus it has an important function in our survival and evolution.

- Dan Ohtan Wang, professor of biology at New York University Abu Dhabi

Talking about what makes a 'strong smeller’, she said: “An Individual’s genomic variations in the 350 genes encoding the olfactory receptors contribute to how sensitive we are born to smells because each receptor has a unique structure to bind to different odorants. A stronger smeller may express more concentrated receptors, or have a larger olfactory epithelium, more efficient signal transduction to the central nervous system, or all of the above, which allows them to construct a conscious smell perception with meaningful information by using less odorant molecules than a weak smeller.”

If you put on a perfume and mentally teleport to a particular day or time in your life or you associate a certain scent with your parents’ or a friend’s home, you are not alone. Humans are made to link memories to the smells around them and there is an important function for it.

“Smell is an important cue for animals to avoid danger, such as spoiled food or fire smoke, and communicate, when marking territories, detecting pheromones, or identifying individuals, thus it has an important function in our survival and evolution. Through natural selection, humans have developed biological means for smell to arouse memories and actions. The process of associating particular odours with specific memories is a process of ‘learned association’ based on one’s previous experiences, which can be highly different among individuals,” Wang said.

Now that you know what goes into making perfume and how we perceive it, the next time you grab that bottle of your favourite scent, you might discover that it may be the day you first wore it or the person you first smelt it on, is responsible for making it your favourite.

Note: This article was first published in July 2023.