Food by VICE

How to Enjoy Food When You Can't Smell Anything

We asked people with olfactory disorders how they deal.

by Yoran Custers; translated by Mari Meyer
Apr 17 2018, 3:30pm

Illustration by Sander Abbema

A version of this article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Netherlands.

If you’re battling one of those head colds that make you feel weak, sluggish, and like you’re extricating the entirety of your skull into an endless stream of tissues whenever you sneeze, your sense of smell is probably also impaired. Not being able to properly smell sucks for a variety of reasons, one of which is that you can’t taste food the way you normally do. Our sense of smell plays a huge role in how we experience food, and without it, only the basic flavors remain: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. The other nuanced flavors that you actually need your nose for? Those are gone.

Eating without being able to smell is pretty boring. The next time you’re eating a well-seasoned dish, try pinching both of your nostrils shut. No matter how much cardamom and cloves you’ve added to your curry, all you can taste is wet rice with a slightly salty sauce. The amount of garlic and cumin in your lamb tagine doesn’t matter; you just notice a chunky sauce with tasteless meat morsels.

So how can you still enjoy food even when you have the world’s most persistent head cold? The question is perhaps best answered by people who deal with a loss of smell on a daily basis. They either can’t smell at all, or their sense of smell is impaired or distorted. People with kakosmia, for instance, might smell a horrible stench for no specific reason. Some people are born with these conditions, whereas others notice a change in the way they perceive scents after an infection or a head injury.

We asked a few people who have an impaired sense of smell about ways to enjoy food while your nose is out of commission.

Julie Velthoven (20), hasn't been able to smell anything her entire life

MUNCHIES: How did you find out you’re not able to smell anything?
Julie Velthoven: In elementary school, they taught us about the [five] senses. We were blindfolded and they stuck a bunch of different spices under our noses, and we had to guess which ones [they were]—oregano and thyme, for instance. All of my answers were wrong. After some research and a few tests I was diagnosed with anosmia, which was a relief. I’d been starting to doubt myself but now I knew what was going on. My nerves simply don’t convert the stimuli into smells.

How do you notice this while you are eating?
I only taste basic flavors. With candies, I can’t tell if they have a strawberry or lemon flavor, but I do know that they are sweet. And if I’m with friends and we pass by a bakery, the smell of fresh baked bread makes them hungry, but for me it’s like there is a glass wall between it and me. I was also at a fish market with a friend the other day and she pinched her nose shut because the smells were so strong. Apparently it smells a lot, but it doesn’t bother me at all.

"I have no idea what cumin is supposed to add. That’s the stuff in the yellow container, right?"

I’ve never been a big fan of eating, but I’ve been enjoying cooking more and more. I have to keep it very simple, though. For example, I have no idea what cumin is supposed to add—that’s the stuff in the yellow container, right? I’ve also left the gas on on multiple occasions while I was cooking. It happened yesterday. My roommate asked me, “did you just cook, by any chance?”

Do you have any advice for people with a head cold who can barely taste anything?
Personally, I choose foods that have something to offer in the texture department. Sushi is interesting, for instance, because it has many different textures. And generally speaking, crunchy things are great. Which doesn’t mean that you should just fry everything. It’s mostly the mushy stuff like boiled asparagus or oysters that just doesn’t do it for me. If I order pasta, I never get something slippery like carbonara, but instead a tomato sauce with vegetables and meat.

I also like adding a bit of spice to my food, by adding something like a hot pepper. That way, I still get some kind of sensation in my nose, even though people tell me this has nothing to do with how you perceive smell.

George Dooper (41), who either can't smell anything or can only perceive distorted scents

MUNCHIES: How long have you had this condition?

George Dooper: Two and a half years ago, I got into a bike crash and fell on the back of my head. I noticed that the food they gave me in the hospital was flavorless, but I didn’t suspect anything yet. It wasn’t until six weeks later, when I was at home with my girlfriend eating baguette and soft cheeses, that I figured something must’ve been wrong. Gorgonzola has a very strong flavor, but I didn’t taste a thing. It turns out that my sense of smell was completely screwed up.

You can imagine your “smell sensors” as thin wires that go from your nose to your brain. Some of mine were still intact, but others had been torn. And some of them had been ripped and reconnected in a different spot. Because of that, I experience certain smells differently. Car exhaust and cigarettes, for instance, smell sour to me in a way I can’t describe. I do notice that I associate that smell with something unpleasant. If a steak is slightly charred on the side, I smell that much more intensely than I would’ve before. It’s so strong that I can barely taste the rest of the steak.

"I put pineapple on my sauerkraut and mashed potatoes so there’s an added tanginess. I also add bacon bits to enhance the salty flavor."

So you think the accident has made eating more difficult.
Generally speaking, things have become either tastier or more disgusting. I don’t like chocolate anymore unless it’s white, because that kind doesn’t contain cocoa. Bananas taste weird, as if they’re all going bad. It’s a bummer, but I also try to use this situation as a way to discover what I like and what I don’t like. I always enjoyed experimenting with food, and now I’m taking on the task of making my meals exciting again.

What advice would you give to others with this condition?
I try to really stimulate my taste buds. I put pineapple on my sauerkraut and mashed potatoes so there’s an added tanginess. I also add bacon bits to enhance the salty flavor. With desserts, I try new things too, like adding shredded coconut or caramel sauce.

When it comes to wine, I enjoy the heavier and stronger flavors nowadays. I found this one wine that has a bit of spiciness to it, which is very tasty. And I only drink the more herbaceous beers. I never liked Palm [Belgian beer] all that much, but these days I do. These things happen.

Joke Boon (56), cookbook author who lost her sense of smell as a child

MUNCHIES: You can’t smell a thing, but you still write cookbooks! You must have some good food advice for people with a sinus infection?
Joke Boon: When it comes to tasting food, all your senses are involved—so use them! You can taste, feel, and smell food, but you can also see it and hear it. When you bite into something, you can hear the crunch, and this tells you something about the texture. A walnut sounds very different from a hazelnut, for instance.

"Semantics are very important to me. If something sounds disgusting, I usually don’t like eating it either."

How so?
Walnuts are more fatty, so they have a high-pitched crack. A hazelnut sounds more like a muffled thud.

Let’s not forget about the visual aspect. How can we make foods more stimulating to the eye?
Deliberately choose certain colors. If you’re feeling a bit low-energy, pick something like yellow, red or orange. Those are delicious, enthusiasm inducing colors, and they’ll amp you up. I’m pretty sure I eat all the colors in a day.

Ultimately, there are many factors when it comes to tasting your food. The plate you eat from, the glass that holds your drink—personally, I really don’t like drinking water from a mug—and whether or not music is playing in the background. If you put on some fast-paced music, you eat faster, and don’t experience the food as much. It’s also more difficult to taste when the food is very hot. Temperature wise, of course, because a hot pepper can actually stimulate your nose.

Could you put all of this advice together in one dish?
In one of my books I have a recipe for pink chicken soup, which contains beets. I also put ginger root and red pepper in the broth, which makes it even more spicy.

Are there dishes you can’t get yourself to enjoy?
Yes, semantics are very important to me. If something sounds disgusting, I usually don’t like eating it either. Like blood sausage, or head cheese. Or tongue. My husband eats it—he’ll eat anything. But I can’t think about it. Tongue—how appalling!