In Search of Lost Smell

6 min readAug 10, 2020
4 months without smell; many, many recipes

On April 1st, I completely lost my ability to smell. Accompanied by a light fever and severe fatigue, this loss was absolutely COVID’s doing. I was isolated from my parents at the time and the texts I sent them read like a sad, self-deprecating science experiment:

“Peanut butter tastes like nothing. Sad.”

“I can only feel textures.”

“Literally stuck my nose into coffee grounds and smell nothing but accidentally shot grounds into my eyeballs.”

Since then, I’ve surprisingly found immense alignment and joy in cooking. It didn’t really make sense to me either, and I thought at first that I was just coming up with an elaborate coping mechanism to deal with what I’ve lost. But I actually don’t feel one step behind who I was, with the carrot of my olfactory abilities dangling out of reach.

Anyone who knows me knows I love literature and words. In 2016, I declared (what a silly word right?) my major/concentration in Comparative Literature at Harvard. That was my sophomore year and in my first CompLit course we read sections of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I remember being struck by the pages and pages he goes on describing grass, or a cookie, and the vivid experience of it all. He’s searching, but there isn’t lack, only abundance. I wrote down a quote that year with my reflections on Proust:

He says, “…we hear endlessly all around us that unvarying sound which is not an echo from without, but the resonance of a vibration from within. We try to discover in things, which become precious to us on that account, the reflection of what our soul has projected on to them” (Proust 119). Here, Proust points out our desire for a metaphor upon which to base our thoughts: simply a direct translation of what we perceive. Yet the nature of the mind to reflect “what our soul has projected on to them” creates an interesting tension and contiguity between reality and perception. The individual believes that they represent the world, when in fact, each individual presents his own metonymy and must learn to deconstruct it in relation to those around him.

This was basically my nerdy realization that to look at the world as metonymy (when you say the pen is mightier than the sword, and pen, which is a part of the whole, represents writing at large) is to constantly think about the “echoes from without.” How do you understand the world around you, the amazing interconnected relationship between things? How you fit into that; how others understand you. But the sensuous experiences of life, when you just simply transcend, are moments of alignment, better represented by metaphor, which is an a-temporal simultaneity. One thing melds into another, and you just feel. Sometimes life is the search for that click and resonance, when biting into a peach means something for you and I all at once, no questions asked. We want the juicy stone fruit of summer to be the exact “reflection of what our soul has projected on to them.”

2020 in the time of COVID feels like an extended, depressing reflection on the language of lacking: “the before-time,” “when we were all together,” “the loss of normal.” It’s a meditation on the hole of experience now, in which we think about time on this horizontal plane, always looking at yesterday, our backs to tomorrow. Not smelling might become my metonymy for the whole experience of lack.

But, I can’t live like this. I can’t think about not being able to smell. About what life felt like when I could smell. I’d rather think about the metaphors within smelling.

There’s a word in Chinese, xiang (on tone one), that doesn’t have a direct English translation. Xiang is the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee; or the perk in your nose when you pass one of those street Nuts4Nuts carts in Manhattan. Xiang peng peng is the endearing expression I use when my fluffed-up pup emerges after a bath; and it can be the sweet, sweet deepness of collapse-into-bed sleep; or the unreal food shoveling when you’ve been on the road for 5 hours and finally inhale that greasy mess of a rest-stop burger. It’s a smell and sense… but it’s not. It’s this simultaneously indescribable yet intimately pinpoint-able feeling.

This morning I found an old jar of roasted hickory nuts, a Chinese snack that is like a wild walnut. They are sometimes sold in their shells and only slightly cracked, but they are not like pistachios which you can simply pry open. (On a language-loving side note, my mom calls me Pistachio in Chinese because the phrase for pistachio is “Happy Nut,” wherein the phrase for happy is “Open Heart,” like the teeny crack of a pistachio shell. And, I am a happy nut.) I spent the morning using a garlic cleaver essentially spraying shell casings around the entire kitchen, my miniature poodle Otis licking away and spatting out what he mistakenly believed were the fleshy nuts. Not smelling means I don’t have a precursor to taste — there’s no preview for the big show, no anticipatory teaser. Just a teeny little pow to my tongue.

But after the effort of pounding away and searching through the smithereens for the remnants of hickory nut, I felt it. Xiang. It was like Proust’s famous madeleine moment of biting and being brought back to a memory, except it wasn’t a memory per se. It was an understanding that smell can’t be something lost if I think of it in terms of the Chinese xiang. It’s an experience; it’s a complex thread of understanding, of alignment and temporal shattering. When I taste the hickory nut, I am not sad because I can’t smell it. I am happy because I know what the sensual experience of eating a damn good smoked nut feels like, even if I have to cleaver my way to it.

I don’t think my search is unique, this mini battle to find alignment in my life. But cooking and eating has given me a window into that possibility — where my love for language, theory, music, and connection come together to maybe give me that feeling of all-at-once-ness. The language of lack and loss is strong, but if there is an antidote, I think it’s the language of sensuous experience. Of finding what is xiang.

Before this quarantine, I wouldn’t even deign to call myself a chef. And even now, I’m just capitalizing on my free New York Times subscription through work and the fact that I can bike to my local farmers market from my parents’ house. I started posting my cooking on Instagram in order to prolong the joy I felt making it for myself. And my friends started sending me encouragement to continue. I still don’t think I’m a chef because I’m just following some recipes, but I do think that I’m not alone in searching for connection and alignment: the narrative that life shouldn’t be tinted with lack.

Even if I miraculously get my smell back this year, I don’t think it will be the same. Research has shown that loss of smell in COVID isn’t actually the destruction of nerves in the nose, but some lost connection in the brain. Maybe this is my chance to form new synapses and connectivity. I guess I’ll essentially always be in search of lost smell. It’s in some ways the perpetual life-giving force of understanding the “vibrations of our souls.” Smell is not just the firing of tingly nerves in our noses, but a connection to joy, rapture, delight, and discovery.

Follow my food journey on Instagram @insearchoflostsmell