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New York Times Restaurant Critic Tries To Regain Sense Of Smell After COVID-19

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One of the defining symptoms of COVID-19 for many is the loss of taste and smell, which is called anosmia. And there is, as of now, no proven and prescribed remedy for getting those crucial senses back. But that hasn't stopped Tejal Rao from trying. The New York Times restaurant critic recently wrote an essay on her fight to regain her sense of smell, and she joins me now to talk about it.

Welcome to the program.

TEJAL RAO: Thanks so much for having me, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You got COVID in December. How are you doing?

RAO: I feel lucky because it was a pretty quick recovery. But I still have these lingering neurological symptoms, including an incomplete sense of smell at this point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So can you tell us about the moment when you realized that you could no longer smell or taste anything? - because I imagine for you in particular, it was very unnerving because of your job.

RAO: Yeah. That was my concern immediately. I called up a bunch of different experts when I was trying to recover, and one of them was Dr. Pam Dalton, who is a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. And the way that she described it is that it was kind of like a lightbulb going off. And that's exactly what it was.

I was at my home in Los Angeles. And I was just stepping into the shower. And I couldn't figure out what this new smell was. You know, I thought it was maybe the water or the tiles or something in the bathroom that I'd never noticed before. And it took me a few minutes to realize, actually, it wasn't a new smell. It was a total lack of smell, like a new blank.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: God. And you've been focusing on trying to get your sense of smell back first rather than taste. Tell me why.

RAO: Yeah. So much of what we think of as taste is actually happening, you know, through the nose and brain, where we have 400 smell receptors that can identify something like a trillion different smells. And that's what makes taste so interesting. So without smell, food becomes really flat, really boring and, in some cases, including for me for a while, kind of disgusting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you embarked on this journey. In your essay, you talk about an orange remedy to try and regain your sense of smell. I mean, how does that work?

RAO: (Laughter) It's not exactly backed by science. But it's the Lalor family's home remedy. They run a restaurant in Canada. And it involves taking an orange, charring it over an open flame until the skin is completely black and then peeling it away and mixing that hot mash of orange pulp with a little sugar and eating it with a spoon while it's still hot. So that...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

RAO: Yeah, it's very simple (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: From restaurant critic to that.

(LAUGHTER)

RAO: I found it to be kind of, like, a fun thing to do. It was a nice little distraction, but it didn't cure me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, you tried a bunch of folk remedies. And you did smell training the doctors say can yield some results. So what does that entail?

RAO: Smell training is - the way it was originally studied is with four essential oils. And you focus. You concentrate. And you smell each one, one by one, and kind of take note of what you're picking up, even if you're not getting much at all or you're getting fragments or it smells unfamiliar. There's a lot of visualization. It's a kind of brain exercise.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you described it as lonely, tedious and mentally exhausting. Where are you in this journey now?

RAO: You know, it's tricky because it's not a perfectly linear journey. Some days are really good. I can pick up on every smell around me again. I feel very confident. And then some days, all of that work seems to kind of disappear. Everything kind of smells like old cigarettes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, food has been such a comfort to so many of us through this time. And not being able to enjoy food consistently seems especially tough, especially for you because of your job. Do you have any advice for others going through the same thing?

RAO: I do think smell training can be really helpful as soon as you do start to pick up smells here and there. But when I was experiencing a total smell loss, it was really a struggle to have an appetite, which is really painful and depressing. It's very difficult. And for me, what I found was helpful was Sichuan food, specifically Sichuan food that had a mala flavor because it was tingly, and it was spicy. And it just kind of revived me and made me feel really good and excited to eat again. But I think that's really different for everyone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tejal Rao is a New York Times restaurant critic.

I wish you all the best.

RAO: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.