Much of the pleasure we get from food comes by way of our sense of smell.
Yes, our sense of taste is important, but alone it registers only the sensations of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory/umami. But the rich, expansive palette, and full appreciation of what it is we’re eating is generated by olfaction, which also has the ability to trigger memories and emotions, as well as stimulate our appetite.
For those disabled by anosmia — the loss of the sense of smell — losing their perception of flavor can be devastating, writes Leah Holzel, a multidisciplinary culinary professional and food journalist. Holzel lost her sense of smell in 2016 following an upper respiratory infection. She turned her focus to designing recipes for anosmics and developing a culinary smell training practice to stimulate her recovery. She is a food columnist for The Monell Chemical Senses Center, a research institute in Philadelphia.
In addition to February being Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, Feb. 27 is Anosmia Awareness Day. Here are two of Holzel’s recipes that aim to help people cope with anosmia and reconnect to the pleasure of eating.
By Leah Holzel
Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomato and Ancho Chili Pesto
The sense of smell is the dominant contributor to our perception of flavor. As a consequence, anosmia deeply disturbs our experience of food as a source of pleasure and comfort — but also food’s ability to stimulate our appetite, satiate hunger and restore physical equilibrium. Regaining a sense of our own wellbeing involves, in part, recruiting facets of our broader flavor system that function independent of olfaction, such as our sense of taste.
This recipe harnesses the taste of umami — that savory sensation named for “essence of deliciousness.” Umami’s positive characteristics — enhancing dimensionality and amplitude while lingering on the palate — offer the potential for a sustained, rewarding eating experience in the absence of smell.
Five reasons to get excited about ingredients again
- The best sun-dried tomatoes start as super-ripe fruit harvested when umami-generating glutamate level is highest. Sun-dried cherry tomatoes have the highest concentration of glutamate.
- Artisan dried pastas have a rough, matte, powdery surface and come in eye-catching shapes. Cooked, they hold their form, have a coarse texture and pleasurable elasticity, with a little resistance when you bite.
- Long-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano has crystalline granules that are fun on the tongue and produce an ever-so-slight crunch. Aging reduces moisture and concentrates the taste, making this one of the most savory-imparting cheeses there is.
- Good, fresh, young extra-virgin olive oil can produce a pleasant sting in the throat thanks to oleocanthal, a healthy phenolic compound discovered at Monell. To make the most of its pungency, use it raw and liberally.
- Miso, Japanese fermented bean paste, is a versatile umami agent that can be used to make soups, spreads, sauces and marinades or just to add a layer of savory seasoning. Use a dab at a time, and don’t worry about it going to waste—miso can live safely in the fridge for years.
Makes 2 cups pesto
⅔ cup sun-dried tomatoes, preferably cherry tomatoes
2 dried ancho chiles
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons miso paste
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1½ teaspoons cider vinegar
3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
1 pound radiatore pasta
In two separate bowls, submerge the tomatoes and chiles each in 1½ cups boiling water and soak overnight; drain, reserving the tomato soaking liquid.
Pull away and discard the chile stems and seeds. Open the chiles, rinse off any remaining seeds and place them skin-side down on a cutting board. Using the back of a butter knife and light pressure, scrape the flesh from the skin. Discard the skin.
In a food processor, or using an immersion blender, combine the chile flesh, tomatoes and ⅓ cup of their soaking liquid, olive oil, garlic, miso, lemon juice, and vinegar, and pulse until well blended but not quite pureed. Stir in the cheese.
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta until al dente; drain, reserving ¼ cup pasta water, and return pasta to the pot. Stir in half the pesto and enough pasta water to coat.
The Anosmia Sandwich
We never know what a person will bring of themselves to a successful approach to their condition. But all successful approaches have in common an individual’s sense of discovery. For me, the adventure of discovering my flavor system in the absence of smell tapped a deep well of curiosity that outweighed my fear of the new and wholly unimaginable sensory perspective anosmia gave me. We are flavor-seeking creatures. Nothing had ever forced my hand so powerfully to use my sense of discovery.
The Anosmia Sandwich was the first recipe I wrote, at the beginning of my smell loss — once I had committed myself to a positive outcome. That commitment allowed me to be alert to, appreciative of and build upon the reality of my perceptions. The recipe is very simple — a whimsical, open-face number that works with fundamental perceptions of color, texture, touch and taste. To the left, I’ve included some of the questions I was curious about when designing this dish (See Tang, texture, color and crunch below). At a time when food was an unfamiliar stranger, The Anosmia Sandwich was my welcome friend and culinary mascot.
Two 10 ounce sweet potatoes, such as Jewel or Garnet varieties
4 slices seeded whole-grain sourdough artisan bread
3 tablespoons salted cultured butter, at room temperature
1⅓ cups curry sauerkraut (such as Hosta Hill brand), drained slightly
6 ounces raw, unpeeled beets, shredded (about 1¼ cups)
Arrange oven rack on the lowest rung. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Wrap the sweet potatoes in foil, place directly on the rack and bake, turning once, until the potatoes are very soft when squeezed, about 1 hour. Transfer to a bowl and let cool slightly before unwrapping, about 30 minutes. Using your fingers, peel away and discard the skin, reserving the flesh and any residual syrup. Smash to a spreadable consistency. (Sweet potatoes can be baked in advanced and refrigerated, peeled or not, for up to 5 days.)
Generously butter the bread. Smear each slice with sweet potato spread. Top with sauerkraut well tousled, then shredded beets. Serve open-face.
Leah Holzel is a food journalist who does culinary research and recipe design for anosmia.
Republished with permission of Monell Chemical Senses Center. Recipes copyright © by Leah Holzel
This spring, Leah Holzel and documentary videographer Irene Plax will host a food-focused workshop and tasting in New York for people living without a sense of smell, featuring recipes from Holzel’s forthcoming book about the science and personal experience of smell loss.
Tang, texture, color and crunch
What form of butter, a seemingly subtle ingredient, has the most developed potential for flavor?
Cultured butter differs from so-called sweet butter in its amplified flavor and tang created when fresh cream is seeded with lactic cultures and allowed to “ripen” before churning. Fermentation produces the aromatic compound diacetyl, which imparts buttery and milky notes, magnifying the inherent flavor already present in butterfat.
How can I use cooking method to intensify the qualities of sweet potatoes?
Baking sweet potatoes in their jackets in foil packets, caramelizes the sugars, concentrates the flavor, and creates a luxurious texture (we perceive the “mouthfeel” as all the more satiny because of the sweetness!). Moist varieties, such as deep orange-colored Jewel and Garnet sweet potatoes, convert 75% of their starch to sugar when cooked, becoming super syrupy.
Without olfactory feedback, I sometimes forget there’s something cooking as soon as I walk out of the kitchen. How can I equip my kitchen so I feel more secure?
A Dutch oven is my failsafe piece of equipment. An enamel-coated cast iron pot with a cover, it facilitates slow, even cooking with much lower risk of burning or scorching the contents I may leave unattended.
What food ingredient would make a good addition to my smell-training practice?
Beets have a bold, saturated color, sweetness and crunch that actively engages our senses. But we’re also keenly sensitive to their muted scent—suggestive of earthy, clean, organic matter. That’s the smell of geosmin, also the molecule responsible for the archetypal earth-essence smell of wet ground after rainfall. Humans can detect geosmin in extremely low concentrations. I added beetroot powder (found in health food stores) to my smell-training kit very early on.
Sauerkraut arouses my appetite and satiates my hunger. Why is it so satisfying in spite of my smell loss?
Fermentation releases the full umami potential of cabbage (a good source of glutamate) with its rewarding ability to linger on the palate. Raw, unpasteurized curry kraut is a superstar sensation-wise: from “savoriness,” to sour and salty, to crunchy and effervescent, to its brilliant yellow color, fiery red chilies, and aromatic seasoning. HOSTA HILL makes some of the best krauts on the planet—each variety in unique, vibrant technicolor.
Republished with permission of Monell Chemical Senses Center. Copyright © by Leah Holzel