This is not good.
Can’t taste a thing.
Can’t smell anything.
I am seriously bummed.
I lost my sense of taste and smell about two weeks after my recent neurosurgical adventure. The surgery involved a procedure in which the brain was accessed through a hole punched in the nose, through some bony plate, through sinus membranes, through the dura.
No surprise, then, that a significant reaction occurs in the sinuses and nasal passages as they are flooded with all manner of crud and crap. The trauma is profound and, to complicate matters, a patient (me) cannot sniff, snort or blow the nose for a month.
And, now, I can’t taste anything.
I write about food. I spend a great deal of time fiddling with food and drink, changing and concocting recipes, nibbling, sipping, paying close attention to subtle nuances, minor changes in flavor, the way in which flavors and textures interact.
And, now, I can’t taste or smell anything.
I am left with the elementary, building blocks — sweet, sour, peppery, salty — texture and mouthfeel.
The first question that occurs, of course, is: Will my sense of taste return?
I’d like to think so. Food becomes mere fuel without the ability to taste what one eats. Mere fuel is boring, thus, a loss of interest is inevitable. If I lose interest in food, I’ll have to take up stamp collecting or fantasy football. Life might get so bleak that I consider attending and monitoring government meetings. Not a worthy prospect.
I do not want to lose interest in food.
But, I wonder, if my sense of taste does not return, what will be the last tastes and smells I experienced? What would I remember?
Dumplings at a seedy and wonderful Denver dive.
I ate them during a misguided trip out of the sickroom.
I was recovering right after my surgery at my sister in-law’s house. I was about a week past the surgery date and I was going stir crazy, confined to a recliner in the living room, watching mind-numbing daytime TV.
My brother, Kurt, had the answer.
“It’s time you got out for a while. Nothing extreme. I’ll take you to the greatest market you’ve ever seen, then we’ll get some lunch and I’ll have you back before you know it.”
I was incredibly fatigued, totally out of focus, but I agreed. Anything to escape Dr. Oz and Oprah. Anything to get out of that chair.
So, we set out on the first leg of our trip. Kurt was not exaggerating: we went to one of the best markets I have ever seen — H Mart.
H Mart is a national chain Korean store. The joint features everything you need in the way of appliances and services in one half of the building. In the other half of the building is a food market, a place of indecipherable wonders.
The produce section is huge and features all the familiar favorites, plus hundreds of items never imagined. Eggplant? You got ’em — five kinds. Cabbage? Let me count the ways. Durian? If you are dumb enough, you can get it there. Mushrooms? Yow!
A thirty–foot-long fish counter features whole fish, flown in that day. Check the eyes for clarity, ask to smell the fish. A fishmonger stands ready to prepare the fish any way you want. Tubs of head-on shrimp await a scoop and a bag. Sea cucumbers? To your right. Razor clams? To your left. Sea urchins? Sure.
I was stunned.
As I was by the meat department. Strange cuts fill the cases. Kurt manhandled a huge slab of pork belly. I inspected pork shanks and veal knuckles.
The aisles are a playground of color, thousands of bottles of pickles, pastes, sauces. Unless you read Korean, you are in deep water. I bought several bottles of stuff, intent on someday opening them and diving in.
The rice aisle is stunning, the noodle section an exercise in sensory overload.
What energy I possessed evaporated quickly and I staggered like a skidrow drunk about ten minutes into the visit, but I was pulled along by the utter weirdness of it all. All those foods, all those flavors, all those brightly colored packages.
By the time Kurt and I left the mart, I was played out.
“Where do you want to go to eat?” asked Kurt.
Like I was going to pick the spot.
I mentioned a couple alternatives, then Kurt told me where we were headed: across town to South Federal — a four-lane strip loaded with a wild variety of restaurants, Mexican, Salvadoran, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese. All authentic (no safe haven here for a lover of P.F. Chang or Taco Bell), many of them shabby in appearance, most of them featuring great food.
“So, where are we going?” I asked.
“Tao Wang Noodle House.”
Ah, Tao Wang Noodle House, located in a threadbare shopette, two doors down from one of my all-time fave Thai holes in the wall: J’s Noodles.
Tao Wang Noodle House: a space approximately twenty by thirty feet in size. Tables fill the space, most of them two tops, enough for twenty diners. A small stand sits at the back of the undecorated seating space. An old cash register, a phone and a credit card machine sit atop the stand. A wall conceals the kitchen. In the middle of the kitchen, a large table. Around the perimeter of the kitchen, various burners, woks, pots full of steaming stocks.
The joint is run by an older married couple — in their 70s, at least.
Mom is short. She has dyed her hair coal black and it sits atop her head in a tangled wad. She wears rumpsprung glasses and her false teeth threaten to fall out each time she opens her mouth. She is rather brusque, but Kurt informs me she is in a fine mood this day. He says it is not unusual for her to approach diners at the dinner hour and order them to finish so she can fill the seats with new customers. Mom handles front of the house like a prison guard working the yard at Old Max..
The husband is the cook. He is skeletal, nearly bald but for a few strands of white hair that jut out from the sides and back of his shiny head. He wears a pair of jeans that could stand on their own, the legs caked with layers of glistening, hardened grease, the patina golden green. The old man makes everything on the somewhat limited menu.
There are five or six starters, three of them involving tripe, one featuring beef tendon.
The second section of the menu includes all manner of dumplings — steamed, fried, shrimp, chicken, pork, vegetable.
The final offerings include a variety of noodle bowls.
I am in fog, so I am game for anything.
We order traditional pot stickers with a pork filling, steamed dumplings and dumplings in chile broth. We order enough food for five people.
We eat it all.
We make our own dipping sauces with soy sauce, a bit of rice wine vinegar and red chile paste. It works with all three types of dumpling. The chile broth serves as a thin but punchy soup. The palate and sinuses are filled with a parade of flavors: sesame, garlic, scallion, pork fat and shrimpy goodness, ginger. The nose is opened by the chiles and the parade marches through unobstructed and unabated.
I am so tired I think I am going to die, but I force myself to remain conscious in order to match Kurt bite for bite, dumpling for dumpling. It is a matter of family pride.
The old lady eyes us from the back of the room. The lunch hour is in full bloom. There are customers waiting. We scarf down the last few dumplings and pay the check, avoiding a reprimand and forcible ejection from the establishment.
There it is, the last thing I tasted before the system shut down.
I have tried everything I know since then to regain my senses, but for three weeks … nothing. I smell nothing (a good thing in some situations), I taste nothing. I have tested myself with chiles, garlic, vinegars, onion, herbs, everything pungent, aromatic, overwhelming I can get my hands on.
If and when smell and taste return, I know what I am going to cook. It’ll be a bookend experience. Pork dumplings in chile broth.
The dumplings are easy: finely minced pork, scallion, garlic, ginger, a bit of soy sauce, a smidge of oyster sauce, a flutter of cornstarch, a drop of sesame oil. The filling is mixed and a bit is mounded in the center of a wonton wrapper. The edges of the wrapper are moistened with a bit of egg wash, the wrapper folded into a triangle and the edges sealed. The finished dumplings are kept on a baking sheet under a slightly moist towel until they are cooked.
The broth? Easy. Chicken broth, a bit of grated ginger, a splash of soy sauce, a splatter of Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar, a bit of sugar, a spoon full of red chile sauce (sambal works just fine). Simmer the broth, taste, make adjustments as necessary.
The dumplings are lowered five or six at a time into boiling, lightly-salted water and gently cooked for a couple minutes, until they float to the surface. They are drained and, when all are cooked, they are divided among bowls.
Julienned carrot and ginger, and thinly sliced, seeded and deveined Serrano chile are sautéed in a bit of oil in a wok or frying pan, the broth is added and the mix is cooked for a couple minutes before being ladled into the bowls atop the dumplings.
I’ll make a dipping sauce of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, chile paste, sliced scallion, grated ginger and sugar. Out of the bowl will come a dumpling and it will take a bath in the dipping sauce. The dumpling goes in the mouth and is followed by a spoon full of the broth.
A celebration of the return of my favorite senses.
All that’s left is to find a pair of jeans that can stand on its own.