Tanzina: You're listening to The Takeaway on Tanzina Vega. One of the most common symptoms of COVID-19, particularly for people with more mild cases is losing your sense of smell. Many people say they regain the sense within weeks, but others can go nearly a year without getting it back. While the symptom is less life-threatening than other aspects of the coronavirus, it's frequently connected to a loss of taste and overall appetite among COVID-19 patients and it can have real consequences for people's lives.
Tejal Rao is the California restaurant critic at The New York Times who recently wrote about losing her sense of smell after getting COVID-19 and the flavors she sought out in an attempt to enjoy the experience of eating again. Tejal, thanks for being with us.
Tejal Rao: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
Tanzina: I have lost my sense of taste and smell with something non-COVID 19 related, so I can't imagine doing what you do and losing that. How did you first realize that you couldn't smell?
Tejal Rao: I realized it immediately. It was one of the first symptoms that I experienced and as soon as it happened, now we're at the point in the pandemic where I think if you lose your sense of smell it's a bit of a red flag so I immediately scheduled a test. I had recently adopted a new dog who gets a little stinky outside, I couldn't smell her. I couldn't smell the hand soap as I was washing my hands. It wasn't the same as when you have a cold and things are a little bit muted, it was a complete blank. It was really quite scary.
Tanzina: What about your sense of taste?
Tejal Rao: Right, so smell and taste are so intimately connected. I could still taste saltiness, sourness at a very basic level, but without smells informing me of all the details; it was almost nothing. Eating became really lifeless and normally it brings me so much joy and so much pleasure as a food writer and I just couldn't find any of that, not even with the foods I would consider my comfort foods when I'm sick, like really good homemade chicken soup or Kanji [unintelligible 00:02:19] rice, even those really comforting things just didn't have anything to offer me.
Tanzina: You actually wrote a piece in October where you documented some of the smells you experience every day in Los Angeles. How did working on that piece make you think about the role that the sense of smell plays in our daily lives? Because I think people take it for granted.
Tejal Rao: Yes, exactly. That's part of why I wrote the piece is that our nose and our brains are working to interpret smells around us all the time and they keep us safe. We smell a gas leak or we smell smoke from the fire and they also are giving us information about our surroundings all the time. I wanted to document everything in a day from the smells pumped out by the industrial bakery down the street to I'm in Los Angeles, so the smell of like coyote mint and sagebrush in the air sometimes, skunks; the good smells and the bad smells, everything.
Tanzina: The sense of smell also helps us keep us safe.
Tejal Rao: Yes, exactly and that can be really disorienting. I'm really lucky because I experienced this short-term loss, but people who are completely without their sense of smell, it can be dangerous. Frankly, it can be really dangerous because smell is a big part of how we understand what's going on around us. It's a little bit like wearing blinders if you can't smell what's happening around you.
Tanzina: You wrote a piece very recently about turning to Sichuan flavors to regain some sense of taste. Why?
Tejal Rao: In part those comfort foods, I mentioned, weren't bringing me a lot of joy and I was losing my appetite and which is very rare for me. Sichuan peppercorns, they didn't help me regain my sense of taste, but they gave me the feeling of tasting. There's a molecule in Sichuan peppercorns it's called hydroxy-alpha sanshool and it creates, when you eat the peppercorns, this buzzing feeling through your mouth and lips.
Even though you're not necessarily tasting the really beautiful floral flavors of the peppercorns that are usually there, I was picking up that buzz, that hum and it honestly just made me feel alive again after being isolated and not having an appetite and in combination with the dry chilies. There was this very gentle burn of chili and then followed by the tingly feeling from the peppercorns and then the burn again from the chili and it just woke me up again. It made me feel good, even though it didn't actually restore my sense of taste.
Tanzina: Is your sense of taste and smell, are they back 100% or would you say they're still lingering?
Tejal Rao: It's still lingering. I'm not at 100% yet, but I can pick up sense in the air again. My partner was boiling tea this morning and I can smell the ginger and the black tea in the air. I'm doing a lot better than I was when I filed this piece a few weeks ago.
Tanzina: You wrote about worrying that you might not be able to do your job anymore after losing your sense of smell, are you still concerned about that?
Tejal Rao: I was really concerned about it a couple of weeks ago, and now I'm starting to feel a little bit more confident that my sense smell return and not just return, but return and be clear again because I think for a lot of people who suffer from anosmia the smells are mixed up, your brain isn't processing them properly and I was very worried about that. I'm not a perfumer, smell isn't the most important part of my work, but it's really crucial and I'm hoping to get back to reviewing soon.
Tanzina: Lots of folks who have gotten the virus have also reported these symptoms. Do you have any advice for people who are still experiencing that loss of smell and taste after getting COVID-19?
Tejal Rao: Oh, it's so personal, but I think bringing smells to yourself every day to see if you can recognize them is helpful. I was using spices and essential oils and it's disheartening every time you stick your nose in like coffee beans and nothing reads, and it's a blank but when you are able to pick up a little bit, it can make you feel really excited again and really positive if you're lucky enough to regenerate those neurons and start to smell again.
Tanzina: Tejal, are you excited to smell something specific right now?
Tejal Rao: Oh gosh. Frying garlic was the thing that really-- I was just cooking for myself and when I was cooking and couldn't smell anything, it was awful but the first day that I could smell a frying garlic, I called my mother. [laughs] I called my parents to tell them, yes.
Tanzina: That's wonderful. We wish you all the wonderful smells and tastes. Tejal Rao is the California restaurant critic of the New York Times and columnist for The New York Times magazine. Tejal thanks so much.
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