Food has been a solace for many of us over the last year of lockdowns, social isolation and shielding. Grocery sales have boomed, internet recipe searches soared, restaurant meal kits have proved a surprise hit, and we’ve become a nation of sourdough bakers.
But what if you can’t taste anything? One of the cruellest features of Covid has been loss of a sense of smell, and with it taste, and for thousands with long Covid, this symptom has lingered.
It was an issue Ryan Riley and Kimberley Duke, the co-founders of cookery school Life Kitchen, couldn’t ignore. From Monday 29 March, their new book, Taste & Flavour, is available to order (with a £3 p&p charge), or to download as an eBook, free from lifekitchen.com thanks to sponsors Greek food suppliers Odysea.
In the book are recipes (including those shared exclusively below) aimed to restore a love of food to sufferers, with dishes that zing with so much flavour that the rest of us will find them addictively delicious too.
Riley and Duke have all the credentials for the job. Over the past three years they have been focusing on recipes and techniques that will rekindle the pleasure of eating for people undergoing cancer treatment, which can strip away the sense of taste as well as creating a dry mouth and difficulty swallowing.
The Sunderland-based Life Kitchen is an entirely free cookery school (founded after Riley’s mother died from cancer), and they have provided lessons for more than a thousand people undergoing cancer treatment since Nigella Lawson opened it two years ago despite being closed for most of the last year. Duke and Riley’s last book, A Life Kitchen Christmas, was also free, and received 1,800 orders the day it was released.
Covid, they found, posed different but no less acute issues. Duke joined long-Covid groups on social media to track the experience of sufferers. “People were saying, ‘I feel that no one understands what I am going through and it’s really affected my life’,” she recalls.
The pair consulted Prof Barry Smith, founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, as well as Dr Duika Burges Watson, from Altered Eating, which works with people whose sense of taste and smell has changed, and Chrissi Kelly, of AbScent, a charity supporting those who have lost their sense of smell.
They found three main strands, Riley explains. “There are the people who have Covid, lose their sense of taste for a couple of weeks then go back to normal. Then there are people that are anosmic, and have a complete, lasting loss of smell, anosmia.” While this doesn’t affect the basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami, all nuance is lost without smell, which is what provides flavour.
“So you can give them lemon and sugar and they will be able to taste only different pieces of that – the acid and sweet.” For these long Covid sufferers, Riley points out, “no one knows for certain if they’ll get their sense of smell back or if they’ll get it back in the same way – and that can be terrifying.”
For this group, Riley and Duke have played with texture, temperature and appearance, as well as super-boosted flavour, to create food that’s more exciting.
Perhaps the most alarming Covid symptom is parosmia, where people have a distorted sense of smell and flavour. Duke expands: “A lot of people going through long Covid describe the smell of eggs as rancid or putrid, the smell of onions and garlic as like garbage – so they are smelling, but it has changed.”
Different people have different triggering ingredients, but coffee, garlic, onions, eggs and roasted meats are all common culprits. “It means a lot of pre-prepared foods are off the menu, and so many of our standard recipes have fried onions – it’s the cornerstone of all of our cooking.”
Riley agrees. “We have had to flip all we know about making delicious food on its head. It’s been quite a journey. So this book isn’t just about creating flavour, it’s about creating a set of safe foods, which aren’t triggering for people with parosmia.”
Duke adds: “We aren’t saying this is going to cure all problems but we can try to make food more enjoyable.” And that is very comforting.
Life Kitchen lessons: how to boost flavour for long Covid sufferers
- Identify “trigger” foods that smell and taste bad to you – often onions, garlic, roasted meats and coffee. Cut them out from recipes.
- Double up in dishes on savoury ingredients, such as soy sauce and mushrooms, or Parmesan and Marmite, or miso and tomatoes, to create a flavour-boosting mix called “synergistic umami”
- Think about texture: mix crisp, soft, silky and crunchy to make food interesting even when flavour senses are dulled.
- Mix hot and cold: chopped raw tomatoes stirred through a stew at the last minute; or in a dessert – ice cream and hot sauce.
- Put chilli sauce on the table: the capsaicin in chillies triggers the TRPV1 receptors in the mouth, giving a burning sensation, even if you can’t taste anything else.
- Stimulate the trigeminal nerve: some ingredients trigger sensations beyond taste and flavour. Try hot horseradish and mustard, but also cinnamon and cooling mint. Use them liberally to give food an extra dimension.
These crunchy twists are made with interesting Middle Eastern ingredients for texture, flavour and intrigue. Whip these up as a tasty snack, or make them for lunch, and watch the compliments roll in.