Cooking with an altered sense of taste

Life Kitchen is a cookery school for people whose taste has been affected, here's a recipe to try at home!
25 January 2022

Interview with 

Barry Smith, University of London, Ryan Riley, Life Kitchen, & Claire




For those suffering with cancer, neruological disorders, COVID-19 and head traumas, eating can become a chore. Harry Lewis caught up with Barry Smith and Ryan Riley from Life Kitchen to find out how those suffering can inject some joy back into food... 

Ryan - When I was 18 years old, my mother was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, and I was her primary carer for two years. There was just this moment towards the end of her life, when treatment was really the only thing keeping her alive, where food just became a necessity, but not one that she cared to indulge in. All of the taste was gone. There's this famous story of us all at family lunch where she bit into an onion where she thought it was an apple and she couldn't tell the difference. It was that bad for her towards the end. And then at the same time, I met Professor Barry Smith, and there was just this element where I thought, I think if we launch something together where we do a cookery class, it could be a really exciting moment to help someone rediscover their love of food in that little bit of pleasure.

Harry - Ryan and Barry wanted to create somewhere or something that could help everyday people who are suffering with smell and taste related conditions, to be able to find affordable everyday alternatives, their workarounds. They won't restore the previously experienced flavours that have been lost, but they may allow those suffering to explore new ones.

Barry - One of the things that is always there is texture and temperature. And so again, this is something that Ryan has experimented with contrasts in temperature, contrasts in textures. Those will still make what would otherwise be a very boring and dull eating experience a bit more interesting. One of the things that really is the sort of major tool to use is the use of foods with umami. Umami is of those basic tastes along with salt, sweet, sour, and bitter, which a lot of people in the west don't recognize. In Japan, umami would be as obvious as salt or sweet. You know, the dishes that have it, they can be mushrooms, they can be tomatoes, they can be Parmesan cheese. So there's a huge range of things. Think of soy sauce. That's that meaty taste we get in it, which is not just saltiness it's meatiness and you get that in mushrooms. You get that in soy sauce that is umami.

Harry - This lone word from Japanese is hard to translate directly into English, but suggested equivalence includes savoury, essence, pungent, deliciousness, and meaty is also said to involve all the senses with connotations of emotion and spirituality. One thing we can be certain of is that both Barry and Ryan are obsessed with it.

Ryan - So one thing I will never stop talking about, because if you want to add more flavour to your food, whether you're living with cancer or Covid or any other reason, just get that umami hit in there. Add some Marmite, into your spaghetti bolognese, add a bit of miso into your mayonnaise on a sandwich. An egg mayonnaise sandwich with some miso through that meal, just adds that real beautiful savoury kick and a touch more saltiness and salt is often really demonized in life, but actually it's the difference between a good and a bad dish. Umami is the difference between a good dish and an excellent one.

Harry - That being said, Ryan, that's what we're gonna do right now. You've got a recipe lined up. We've got the potatoes in the pan. They've been bubbling away. What are we doing at the moment, what's in front of us?

Ryan - See this for me is my favourite dish in the whole book. It's called miso, bit of potatoes with a green chilli vinegar. Now, when we were talking earlier about how you can't have recipes with garlic and onions at the core, that would scare most people, but actually it's the key again. If you can add a base, if umami rich like beginnings, then you'll really kind of not miss the garlic and onion base. So for this, we've got some beautiful, new potatoes and they're lovely and hot. I've just drained them, going to drop them into the pan. And then we're gonna do like a classic bit of cookery by just adding a lot of butter. It is really an important part. We're gonna get some miso in there. Now miso comes in so many different forms. It's brown, it's white. It's red. But at the core is, this beautiful, like fermented soybean. And it might end up a little bit more the thing about cookery and the thing about when you've lost your sense of taste, you are looking at how you can adjust for personal preference.

Harry - So kind of forget the ingredients book, start from scratch and kind of go back to cooking at its core. You figure out what the guidelines are.

Ryan - Yeah. Nigel Slater once said that a recipe you should cook once or twice, and then you should go off on your own because if you get the basis in, you then realize what works for you. You know, both me and you standing here now have different tastes. So how can a recipe fit that? So you get that core and then suddenly you've got the basis, just don't swap out the miso. And now just about to add a little bit of soy sauce and a little bit of pepper. So that's three types of umami already, and it's not like we've used anything that unusual, smashing it down there just to really get those flavours in. And so we're gonna be moving onto this green chilli vinegar. And that again is playing into so many of our other senses and it starts by chopping some coriander, parsley and mint.

Harry - In goes the chilli.

Ryan - I'm gonna get this into a ball now. And now the favourite part here is we're going to use really cheap malt vinegar. So we've got all those herbs. We've got that vinegar.

Harry - In they go.

Ryan - And I'm going in, we're using lots of it here. And I think we should serve this up.

Harry - I think we should serve it up Ryan. Great idea.

Ryan - We should, but I'm gonna give you one warning. When we tested it, there was a lady who had COVID and her housemate didn't. She loved this dish and her housemate said it was so strong that it nearly blew her head off. <laugh>. Now the thing for me is I love flavour. I love powerful, real, amazing flavour packed food. So I hope you can handle it.

Harry - I can't think of a time that I've ever tasted malt vinegar in that way. And in that manner.

Ryan - It adds to it. It's not just the seasoning of the potato. Yeah. It really brings together the whole dish. It has a new dimension.

Harry - It is that malt vinegar slightly different, but it hits the palette really strong at the beginning, but that flavour lasts. And I don't, I don't think that's too much that hasn't blown my head off. I'm gonna go in for more.

Ryan - It has blown your mind, right?

Harry - It's blown my mind. I mean, it really was powerful. The team at life kitchen had put together a book of simple recipes designed around those who are burdened with parosmia, but live in the usual fast paced lifestyle that we're all used to. It's called taste and flavour, and it's free for all those who need it. You can download a digital copy online, which will also help fill you in on what's happening to your sense of smell and taste. Armed with this compact little recipe book, I went back to Claire and asked her to give one of the recipes a go for me.

Claire - So I tried the cherry and almond tartlets.

Harry - And we were chatting over text and it was because you fancied something sweet, didn't you?

Claire - Yes. Yeah, yeah.

Harry - And how did it work out?

Claire - So I mean, I guess the recipe was really sort of easy to make. The only thing I would say, I got the slightest hint of taste with the cherry. Yeah. While the syrup was cooking, I could sort of smell a little bit, you know, I could smell the orange coming out in it and I thought, oh, this looked quite good. But, yeah, the finished product, I could just taste a bit of the cherry, in the sort of, in the tart. But yeah, I mean, I didn't let it put me off and certainly I'm gonna try the lemon and zaa'tar feta twists I think. So I'm gonna have a go at them this weekend, but my other half said it was really tasty, so it didn't really help.

Harry - Maybe it didn't work out for Claire on this occasion, but that's okay too. As Ryan mentioned, we all have unique differences when it comes to our sense of smell and our sense of taste. Claire did tell me that she's not deterred, she's buying the ingredients for the corn soup and potato dish that I'm so fond of. And I think her honesty throughout this process has been fantastic because if you're suffering from a similar condition, you'll know probably all too well, it doesn't always work out on the first go, but it might on the next.


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