I thought I knew what Umami was, until I got Covid.
Updated: Sep 24, 2022
I've always been a bit of a foodie. No matter where I was, I would always try to look for the most authentically local dishes, restaurants, or cuisine to savor. Whether we're in the middle of the San Fernando Valley or in Greece or Nepal, whether we're in a 5-star restaurant or a roadside food cart, there is always some wonderful tasty dish I've got to try.
It's funny but last week, my 2 partners and I found ourselves discussing the merits of LA hospitals based on the food at their cafeterias. That is the one good thing about being a doctor, you'll always get free food wherever you go. No guarantee that it'll be good food, but free food is usually available for those who have to come in at all hours of the day and night to see patients. We often have to eat at a hospital every day for years on end, so we quickly learn what's tasty and what's not in each hospital, and what day of the week they're being served. I still remember the beef macaroni at UCLA Medical Center (Wednesdays), the chile verde at Olive View (Thursdays), the fish in creamy dill sauce at Kaiser Sunset (Fridays). I've always been happier with savory dishes instead of sweet dishes, so I thought I knew all about Umami.
I always thought Umami was that savory, slightly sweet, mostly salty taste that is found in meats, cheeses, mushrooms, truffles, or MSG. Then, in December of 2020, I got covid-19. No fever, no sore throat, no body aches, no cough, no shortness of breath, my infection was centered squarely in my upper respiratory tract. Just a tight swollen head with a completely congested nose for a week straight. This is the classic presentation for patients who ended up with anosmia, the loss of taste and smell that is particular and peculiar to Covid-19 infections. So I couldn't smell anything at all for several weeks after the infection. I could still taste the sweetness, the saltiness, the sourness, and the bitterness of everything, so clearly the tastebuds on my tongue were not affected.
Most patients with anosmia will recover the sense of smell and taste within weeks, months, or years. Some may even experience a change in taste and smell when these sensations come back, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Maybe it helps to be an optimist because the smells that I like seem to have all come back and the nasty smells, like the bathroom, still haven't returned. I just never heard of anyone discovering a new taste before.
Chronologically, the smell of coffee came back first, within the first few months. Then slowly, I could smell jasmine and earl grey tea, and onions and citrus. There was a 4 week period in the fall of 2021 when some of the apples would taste like dish soap or some type of chlorine chemical. We experimented with different types of apples like Gala, Honeycrisp, Fuji, Jazz, Sweet Tango and noticed that some have this yucky taste and some don't. Thankfully, this malfunctioning taste/smell appears to have gone away after a few weeks because apples are just apples now.
On December 31, 2021, we were driving home from the Central Coast excursion and stopped by a sandwich shop called Fast Eddy's in San Luis Obispo for dinner, which was one of the few places still open on New Year's Eve. I ordered the Hawaiian hamburger with pineapple, onion, and teriyaki sauce. It was an extraordinarily good hamburger. Initially, I thought it was the teriyaki sauce and had remarked to my husband that there is a bizarre yummy secret ingredient in the sauce that I have never tasted before. I rolled it over in my mouth, nose, and brain to see if it could be curry, nutmeg, or cardamom. Then I thought " It can't be the onion, can it? Where did they grow this onion that tastes so amazing?"
For the next several days, I started noticing this bizarre heavenly taste and smell not just in the onions, but in mushrooms, grilled meat, fried fish, and even some fruits like guava. When I tried to explain this flavor to my husband, I couldn't find words other than an exotic spice or flavor, nutty, savory. It was like trying to describe the color red to a colorblind man. Words aren't adequate to explain what it is. Until it occurred to me that maybe this is what Umami is. I just never had it before so I didn't know that I didn't know.
Making the best use of my newfound taste buds, I am tasting, sniffing, and inhaling every old food like it's a new thing. The fried Banh tet ( a savory pie with pork, mung bean, and sticky rice that we eat for Vietnamese New Year) never tasted so good. Simple rice, fried fish, and Vietnamese meatloaf are a marvel of new flavors, especially with onion oil.
I don't know if I will lose this new taste or flavor too someday, like that other weird chemical taste malfunction. If I do, I hope I can still recall the taste in my memory. But at least for this time, I have experienced true Umami. And like Love or the color turquoise, I can file it away as one of life's cool bonuses, and I can now nod sagely when other foodies wax poetic about this most mysterious of taste and I can tell my own story about how life was before and after I discovered Umami.
Happy Lunar New Year. May the year of the Tiger brings you peace, love, joy, and success in all your endeavors.