Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Tasting without tastebuds: Eating during flu season
There's a bowl the size of my face on the table in front of me. It's heavily layered in seafood, its peaks and valleys striped and shining. Sprigs of seaweed spring like ribbons, and play-doh-like puddles of uni overlap one another. The musky aroma of charred uni-stuffed tamago curls into my nostrils
Or it would, had I any sense of taste or smell. I only know that it is, objectively, because I have had this exact bowl before.
You may recall that I lost my sense of taste in Japan last July for a few days. This completely blindsided me, reducing me to a crying, paranoid ball of uselessness. It had never happened before. It had no precedent. What if it never went away?
Well, it did go away - luckily, because I had two more months in Asia, and a tasteless trip in Asia is a depressing trip in Asia - and when it happened to me again a few weeks ago, I remained dry-eyed, knowing that it would pass.
Also, my dad was in town for four days and he required a food guide. Basically, I was going to eat, I was going to eat constantly, and I was going to have to find a way to like it. There was no wallow-in-self-pity option this time.
To hold back my intermittent waves of regret as I consider the prospect of eating this bowl without tasting it, I start thinking about what else I can do to help me enjoy it. Might this help me get better at noticing texture? Is it possible for me to enjoy the tiny snaps of fish egg membrane on my tongue as much as I normally enjoy the little individual waves of saltiness?
Viewed through a textural lens, the bowl takes on an utterly new quality. It's a little bit like trying to taste in a dream. In dreams what one experiences is based entirely on inference and expectations, since there are no external stimuli.
Or maybe it's like trying to appreciate one of those thickly layered, practically 3-D oil paintings by licking the surface and feeling the points and swirls of the dried paint on my tongue.
I have to ignore the tendency to infer and focus only on what I can actually feel.
What I can feel is those tiny snaps, how far my teeth can go before their pressure breaks the roe's surface tension. It reminds me of watching videos of water gliders walking on ponds. I try to hold my teeth at that exact point where my teeth are skating across the surface.
What else I can feel is the pillowiness of the salmon enclosed in the sharp, close sheets of seaweed. If I get a piece of fish between two pieces of seaweed, the salmon abruptly shoots out the sides into my cheek like a Nerf ball, and I have to reconfigure the food in my mouth in order to chew it all at once.
The tuna is more striated than the salmon, and this allows it to fall into neat, even blocks after one clean chew. I like it best with with strips of daikon, like onions around ceviche.
And the uni - oh, the uni. Ten tongues of glistening marigold, and I know that they taste like sweet oysters and ocean, but I have to not know that for the time being. They fall apart mashed between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, but for the first time, I notice that the seemingly slimy blob is actually thousands and thousands of miniscule lobes and globes. Not eggs, but protrusions like the currently nonfunctional bumps on my own tongue.
Something my teeth think is a sort of mushroom turns out, upon discussion, to be sea cucumber, and the squid in uni marinade is oddly identical to certain kinds of Vietnamese chè.
The tamago is the only thing that sort of makes it through my heretofore impenetrable wall; even though I can't experience it directly, after I eat it, the inside of my nose feels a little bit like I'm at a barbecue.
Postscript: Spicy BBQ Thai Restaurant
My tastelessness lasts three days, and like last time, it evaporates so suddenly that the ensuing rush of flavors feels like being on powerful hallucinogens!
I recommend, should you find yourself coming off a nasty cold, or even should you not, and just want a delicious, basil-y punch to the tastebuds, you order the Northern special pork patties at Spicy BBQ in Hollywood.