Potatoes are one of the “safe foods” for people who have experienced COVID-related changes in taste and smell, say chefs Ryan Riley and Kimberley Duke. They amped up the umami in their miso butter potatoes with green herb vinegar for maximum sensory impact.
In their cooking classes for people with cancer, Ryan Riley and Kimberley Duke make these pineapple tacos with prawns and spring onions. To meet the needs of people whose sense of taste and smell have changed because of COVID-19, they created a vegetarian version with feta cheese.
The chili paste in Ryan Riley and Kimberley Duke’s preserved lemon, feta and za’atar twists stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which adds to the sensory experience of eating them.
“I woke up this morning to someone tagging me into their umami biscuits recipe on Instagram and they said, ‘Five stars,’” says Ryan Riley. “Those are the little things that matter to me.”
Smashed new potatoes, bathed in miso butter and drizzled with chili-spiked herb vinegar, can be a tonic. For people experiencing taste and smell changes due to COVID-19, this layered dish could be as restorative as chicken soup for common cold sufferers, and just as satisfying for the soul.
“I think it is one of the best things we’ve ever created,” says British chef Ryan Riley. “Because it’s so simple, but it just uses all of the right things.”
The recipe for miso butter potatoes with green herb vinegar is among nearly 20 others in Riley and chef Kimberley Duke’s new cookbook, Taste & Flavour . Available as a free download, they created the book to serve as inspiration for those who are living with the sensory side effects of COVID-19.
Colourful, stylish and enticing, as with all of the work they do, the book is based in science and informed by conversations with people about their firsthand experiences. The best friends founded the non-profit cooking school Life Kitchen in 2019, in Sunderland, England, where they specialize in helping people with taste and smell loss caused by cancer treatment.
Expanding their focus to include COVID-19 long-haulers and others whose senses have changed due to the disease started out of curiosity, says Duke. They got in touch with AbScent , a charity that supports people who have lost their sense of smell, and Altered Eating , a research group and support portal for people undergoing a changed relationship with food.
After joining their patient-focused groups on social media, Riley and Duke quickly realized that COVID-induced changes in taste and smell were causing feelings of alienation and isolation, and greatly affecting people’s daily lives. They also saw the parallels between people going through cancer treatment and those in the grips of long-haul COVID-19.
“There were so many people, literally thousands of people, saying, ‘I feel like no one understands what I’m going through. I feel like my partner doesn’t get it. It’s really difficult,’” says Duke.
“So we just thought, ‘We have to do something.’ There are so many people suffering and food is such a big part of our lives. Especially now with the pandemic; I feel like all our lives have become focused around what we’re going to eat next … and if you’re struggling with food, you’re not even getting that at the moment. I think that’s such a difficult thing for people.”
When they started working on Taste & Flavour in November 2020, Riley and Duke thought they would be able to share some of their previous recipes for people with generalized taste issues related to cancer. But as their research deepened and more COVID-19-specific information became available, they began to adapt their approach.
Scientific understanding of the disease continues to unfold, Riley highlights, and its sensory side effects can vary person to person. But they were able to base their work on three key aspects: the general taste and smell loss that can occur during the first roughly two weeks of illness; anosmia, or smell blindness, which can persist for months after the disease’s onset; and parosmia, a distorted sense of smell, which may likewise last for months.
Parosmia especially presented unique challenges when it came to developing recipes. For people with the disorder, ingredients such as garlic and onions are no longer foundational; they’re repulsive. Belonging to a category of so-called “trigger foods,” which also includes coffee, eggs, nuts and roasted meats, they commonly elicit disgust from those with a distorted sense of smell.
“The most difficult part for us was the fact that we had to really eliminate quite a big group of foods that are actually delicious, but unfortunately not to people right now, and start again,” says Riley.
“When you’re trying to write delicious recipes, but without being able to use garlic and onions, that’s quite a difficult thing for a chef because it’s the basis that most of us know about flavour. So we really had to flip it on its head this time round.”
In creating all of their recipes, Riley and Duke use the five principles of taste and flavour they developed with the help of Barry Smith, co-director of the University of London’s Centre for the Study of the Senses: aroma, umami (or savouriness, the fifth taste), texture, layering and trigeminal food sensations (the trigeminal nerve is involved in biting and chewing, and sensation in the face).
For Taste & Flavour , they incorporated what they learned about the needs of people with parosmia, avoiding “trigger foods” and drawing on “safe foods,” such as potatoes and oats. Because experience of ingredients can vary so widely, however, they made sure to include plenty of substitutions.
“It’s important for us to make sure that we’re telling people there’s no magic bullet, but these are some things that might help: boosting umami, stimulating the trigeminal nerve, and incorporating things with small smell molecules,” says Duke.
Eighty per cent of what we taste relies on our sense of smell. Ingredients such as citrus fruits and vinegar can be smelled swiftly and serve to stimulate the appetite.
“The molecules travel quickly through the air towards you and into your nasal passages,” adds Duke. “Again, it’s different for everyone, but we try and incorporate those things to make it more widely appealing while also giving people the option to sub out ingredients if they don’t work for them.”
Breaking down the science into ingredients is one of their key strengths, says Duke, as it makes the principles easier for people to understand.
Umami, for example, is present in foods such as cheese, fish, miso (fermented soybean paste), mushrooms, seaweed and soy sauce. By layering various umami-rich ingredients in their recipes, Riley and Duke create synergistic umami. Riley refers to it as “super umami,” which can help to increase the intensity of other flavours — or, as Duke puts it, “make food more delicious.”
Here lies the success of their recipe for miso butter potatoes with green herb vinegar. Miso and potatoes are umami-rich, as is the soy sauce used in the miso butter. “Then there’s also all of the other elements: there’s salt in the dressing and there’s vinegar and there’s chili in that dressing and there’s herbs,” says Riley. “So amongst all of those different components in what looks like a very simple recipe, you’re triggering so many elements of the eating and the tasting process.”
Creating flavour isn’t just about using the most powerful ingredients, adds Duke, it’s also about sensory excitement. Marrying different textures — crunchy or creamy — and temperatures — hot or cold — can ignite interest, as can stimulating the trigeminal nerve using ingredients such as cinnamon, horseradish, mint, mustard and wasabi.
Responsible for conveying the warmth of chili peppers and the coolness of mint, stimulating the trigeminal nerve is an important aspect of their approach for two main reasons, says Riley: it connects people to food so they have a reason to come back to the table, and makes the act of eating more enjoyable and interesting.
“If you haven’t been connected by taste, feeling a sensation from eating something can mentally help you get back into that idea that you’re getting something from it, or enjoying something from it,” says Riley. “We’re not just talking flavour. We’re talking sensation. We’re talking dressing it up and making it beautiful. And food comes in so many different ways that the more you can give to it, the more you’ll get back from it.”
Both Riley and Duke’s mothers died from cancer, which initially inspired them to channel their culinary expertise towards supporting people who have the disease. Duke’s grandmother and father are going through cancer treatment, and she recognized how hard it was for her father at Christmastime, sitting at the table but unable to enjoy the meal.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time in cancer and not everyone has always understood what we do. But now that so many people have experienced taste loss, you understand how devastating it can be,” says Riley. “It’s been an awakening for a lot of people to understand that people go through this in cancer, but also now how important it is to eat and get together and be together, and have delicious food. Because it just contributes so much to mental health overall.”
Duke adds: “And it’s not just people who are going through COVID and going through cancer who experience changes to their sense of taste. There’s a whole world of people who experience smell difficulties. Once we raise more awareness, hopefully people will stop feeling as isolated.”
Taste & Flavour is available for download at lifekitchen.co.uk .
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