The chef who lost her sense of smell 30 years before the COVID-19 pandemic

March 25, 2021 0 Comments

As this writer recovers from COVID-19, she speaks to a chef who lost her sense of smell 30 years ago

For 10 days, all I could taste were oranges. Those citrusy bites were my only gustatory awakenings in the sleepy blandness that COVID-19 brought into my life. But, I could not smell them.

Close your eyes and picture your favourite food. It is likely that the first thing you thought of was how it smells. The parts of your brain that process your emotions and memories use olfactory data, linking them closely. Our sense of smell richens our sense of taste.

So when you wake up one morning and lose both, the world around you shifts slightly. You don’t realise it but you miss the stimuli that were anchoring you: the smell of your skin, your bedsheets, wet soil in the garden, the shampoo in your hair, breakfast cooking in the kitchen.

It happened to me in February, after I caught COVID-19. But to Chindi Varadarajulu, it happened 30 years ago — a severe flu during her second winter in Vancouver, Canada, left the would-be chef’s nose incapable of sniffing out flavours.

“I am still upset that I have never smelt real lilacs,” says Chindi. After appointments with specialists in Singapore and Canada, she had a name for the condition: anosmia.

Chef Chindi Varadarajulu, founder of Pumpkin Tales

In the past year, anosmia has become a significant marker of Covid. Or in my case — parosmia, where instead of an olfactory vacuum, familiar smells seem distorted. For a few days, I wondered if anyone had spilled anything rancid in the vicinity. Did our dog kill a rat we did not know about? Because it seemed as though a stench would follow me around, stuck inside my nose.

Around the world, as there is greater research on ‘long covid’, there may be relief for people whose symptoms have still not abated, even after testing negative.

Thirty years on, Chindi’s sense of smell still has not returned. Still, it did not pull her back from a career in the culinary arts. Could her journey provide some answers for those who still show symptoms of anosmia?

“For a year after I stopped being able to smell, I tried nasal sprays of all sorts. Sometimes I would convince myself that I smelled something familiar — but it was just like a phantom itch,” says Chindi.

At her first restaurant in Vancouver, set up in 2003, she remembers accidentally burning a batch of dal, failing to notice and put it out until someone drew her attention to it. Today, she creates new recipes out of memories of old flavours, and has her team at Pumpkin Tales in Chennai test it out.

She can do this because all these years, she has been making up for her lack of smell through an accentuated sense of taste.

“I may not be able to identify flavour profiles [a combination of taste and smell] but my taste is enhanced in many ways. For instance, tamarind, tomato, lemon — these are all sour tastes, but to different degrees: some sharp, some more rounded, some leave a bitter aftertaste, some sweet. I can appreciate all of that because of my years of training in it,” says Chindi.

I could see how visually appealing the meal was: a dollop of ghee melting over the tomato dal, seasoned with herbs and greens. But inside my mouth, it was a hot lump of nothingness

The passion with which she speaks of taste reminds me of the two weeks I spent bereft of it. At lunchtime, I could see how visually appealing the meal was: a dollop of ghee melting over the tomato dal, seasoned with herbs and greens. But inside my mouth, it was a hot lump of nothingness. Fluffy rotis were like wet paper; evening snacks nothing better than an exercise in chewing.

So of course, after getting my taste back, the first swirl of peanut butter chocolate ice cream made me feel complete in a way nothing else has.

Chindi encourages me to pay more attention to the food I eat, and I readily agree. “Take in the texture. Look at what you are eating and associate it with what you’re feeling in your mouth, focus on the balance of tastes,” she recommends.

Train yourself

Pay attention because if it slips away, you might not notice all at once. For, while there are eye charts and hearing tests, there are not many quantitative ways we can measure our power of smell and taste. Which is why, many people who have been infected with Covid once find it difficult to say for sure whether their senses have returned completely.

Smell kits help. Comprising essential flavour profiles, they help associate odours with the correct source, almost willing your brain into recognising and remembering them.

Back in February, I would do an informal training every day, as I picked up an apple or my favourite bar of soap, sniffing it, trying to remember what it smelt like.

After I was reacquainted with a familiar smell — a cloud of freshly sprayed disinfectant, I rushed to the kitchen, sniffing spice after spice like some strange dog-woman. Most I could recognise again, but some are ‘muffled’ till date.

“You should come over to the restaurant once,” offers Chindi, “We can do a smell-test and see how many you get right.” I look forward to it.


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