This story is featured in the May/June issue of Seattle magazine. Subscribe here to access the print edition.
A few key circumstances intersected to offer me a unique angle on Seattle’s food scene. I moved to the Emerald City a few months ago, fresh from my Covid-19 post-infection quarantine. Still “long-hauling” symptoms, I was ready to spice up my existence — literally and figuratively.
When I was in the throws of Covid-19, I found relief in ingesting uncanny amounts of pickled ginger, wasabi and honey, enjoying the stings and textures as signs that I was still perceptively alive. A few months later, freshly moved to Capitol Hill from New York City, I was still lacking a sense of smell and taste, and I found myself looking for anything pungent, stringent or shocking enough to awaken my awareness of my surroundings and the local foods and flavors.
While not being able to taste food is a main part of the problem, imagine being in Seattle for months and not once experiencing the fragrant waft of burning Indica or the intense aroma of freshly ground coffee beans. Environmental context clues aside, I walked these new streets relying on my curious eyes, diminished appetite and rapacious need to be shaken out of this sensorial stupor.
It is worth mentioning that I grew up in Eastern Europe, enjoying excellent cuisines that, however, were more notable for their savory profiles and buttery desserts than their spiciness. My tolerance to spice was low enough that I only started to play around with Tabasco, Cholula and Valentina a year or two ago — with some effort.
On my first night in Seattle, I enjoyed a Teriyaki Burger with 12 Spice Fries from Katsu Burger, a nice warm-up to more adventurous gustatory trips later on. I could recognize the tanginess of the pineapple in the burger and feel the slight heat from the fries in my throat.
While flavor is a foreign concept for me these days, my taste buds are recovered enough to at least recognize whether something is sweet or sour. I could, for example, distinguish the sweetness of the pineapple, but if texture wasn’t a factor, it could’ve just as well been a tangerine or a piece of apple.
Days later, I ordered a michelada at my neighborly Fogón. Boy, wasn’t that a surprise. I could not taste the alcohol at all, although my friend insisted that it was a fairly strong drink. The tomato juice in it went largely unnoticed, and the only thing that briefly pointed to the fact that I was interacting with an adult concoction was the flavored salt on the rim of the glass.
Salt. It has a special place in my heart. Even before my anosmia, I worried friends and family with my uncanny sodium intake.
I peppered it on everything, from my homemade spaghetti marinara to the elote I was buying at the corner of my street in Brooklyn. Sea salt, pink salt, table salt — it all seemed to revive bland dishes and give an extra oomph to flavorful ones. Given all this, I ventured to the north shore of Lake Union to eat oysters at Westward. Oysters, I figured, were a great bomb of texture and sodium that should make me feel something.
I felt a bit disgusted, and a lot unsatisfied. Oysters without their marine touch and proteiny essence turned out to be just a gelatinous blob that slid down my throat too fast. I couldn’t even hold on to the delight bestowed by saltiness. That’s how fast it all went down(hill).
I hauled my disappointment to an ice cream shop, Salt & Straw on East Pike Street. When it came to sweets, I was well-versed in buttery textures, jams, sugars and chocolates, and I was determined to imagine sweet flavors if all I got from ice cream were the textures. And it turns out I had to imagine. A lot. Trying to conceive flavors is a difficult thing that I grow frustrated with each time I do olfactory therapy, including smelling lemons, jasmine oil and garlic a few times a day. It’s a taxing habit that, however, is so worth doing when it comes to sugar intake.
Unless, of course, it fails to work. I chose a hearty scoop of Beecher’s Cheese with peppercorn toffee and one of Elm Coffee and Westland Whiskey, and all I got from them were the creamy, textural bits of the cheese and the microcrunches from the toffee, without the taste. I closed my eyes, trying to focus on imagining the flavors, forgetting that I was trying to revive two organs at once: a muted olfactory bulb and a foggy brain.
A few days ago, I went all in on the spicy front on a last-ditch attempt at reviving the shambles of my sensorial vitality. I was accompanied by someone who grew up having to drink hot sauce shots as punishment for naughtiness, a great person to push me out of my comfort zone.
We first got Mexican food at Cactus in Tacoma, which came out with two hot sauces. The spiciest of the two must have been made with ghost peppers, a sort of hybrid chile pepper cultivated in Northeast India and well-known for its numbing, intense flavor. I lathered it on my chicken fajitas, recognized a bitter taste in the back of my throat, then passively witnessed my eyes getting watery and my body temperature going way up. I was warm, alive and in pain.
It was a good, reviving pain, which I recognized again the following day when I scooped up a spoonful of hot chicken Tikka Masala from Zaika, a modern Indian restaurant appropriately claiming to deliver a “mouth-watering shock to your taste buds.”
As I continue to wait on my smell and taste to return, I’m determined to go on exploring the edges of my sensorial perception and open my eyes to things I might have previously missed out on. I may lack some tools, but I know I’ve sharpened others, like my ability to focus on textures, withstand intense spice and appreciate brightly colored food.