x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

1,001 Arabian bites: Loss of sense of smell hasn't put a stop to cooking

My aunt Kathy is the best home cook I know - and she can't smell or taste.

No offence to my mum or anyone else's, but my aunt Kathy is the best home cook I know. Before you dismiss my brusque superlative with a "yeah, yeah, I've heard that one before", and because strolls down memory lane are best used to elicit sarcasm and saccharine, let me qualify it by saying: she's the best home cook I know, and she can't smell or taste.

My position on this was corroborated last weekend when I visited her at her home in New Jersey. Multitasking at superhero level, she whipped together a platter of juicy sea scallops, blitzed in a searing hot oven until caramelised along the edges and silky within. She also made lubia bi zeit (green beans stewed in olive oil with tomatoes and garlic) that channelled my grandmother's spirit in a way I would have previously thought possible only in the afterlife. Kathy still balances the subtle smoke and cream of her inexpressibly fabulous baba ganoush, my personal gold standard that's made from a recipe I have never successfully replicated. Finally, she mixed a perfect green salad and yanked a bundle of asparagus off the grill with the hand of a demigod, at the precise moment of charred and wilted perfection.

Kathy wasn't always this way - "anosmic", to cut the melodrama - but she is now. When she lost her sense of smell overnight last winter, many of us grew personally invested in figuring out how it had happened, partly because we love her and partly because we're genetically bound to her as self-serving fiends who consider her cooking a reason for living.

The book Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum, is about the author's gradual reunion with the world of smell and taste after a car accident shattered her skull and her dreams of becoming a chef. I had read through parts of the book and liked it, so I told my aunt about it. "That's interesting," she said, while making lunch, "but I don't really feel like I need to 'heal' my relationship with food." She asked me if I'd ever heard of phantom limb syndrome, in which a person perceives sensations in a limb that is no longer there, and I said that I had. "Well, I feel like a have a phantom limb, only it's hungry and it lives in my head. Is there such a thing as phantom taste syndrome?"

That's when I remembered that Ben Cohen - the "Ben" in Ben & Jerry's, is anosmic. Cohen craved texture more than anything - so he built an empire out of frozen chunks. Kathy's favourite food in the whole world is ice cream and these days, it's one of the only things that gives her unadulterated and uncomplicated pleasure - even if she can't taste it. The temperature of ice cream is appropriately anaesthetising, especially for people who like their frozen treats to be tongue-numbing and chewably firm, not soupy and yielding.

The pleasures of grilled asparagus aside, we all tried for a while to solve Kathy's sensory mystery, Googling "anosmia miracle cure" and pleading for referrals to smell and taste centres across the Lower 48. Was it caused by voodoo, a virus, or was it the delayed result of an old sinus surgery? Driven to find order in a disorderly world, we scavenged for answers where there weren't any. Multiple otolaryngologists concluded that there was nothing she could have done differently. Now and then, lousy things happen at random. We are unsatisfied with that. And she just keeps on cooking.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who lives and cooks in New Mexico

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