Growing up in Brampton, Ont., Joshna Maharaj would often wake up to the smell of onions and garlic frying in a pan.
The thick odour would creep from the kitchen, through the halls of the house and into her bedroom. She’d close her eyes and inhale greedily in anticipation of her mother’s cooking.
The onion-and-garlic combination was the foundation of all of her family’s cooking. And in her career as a chef, it’s a smell that’s lingered in every kitchen she has ever set foot in.
So while she can’t say for sure the exact moment when she lost her ability to smell, she does know this: The realization hit hardest about six years ago, when she lost the smell of onions and garlic. She’d walked up to a pan of her mother’s cooking that day and found herself startled by the sight of garlic browning and onions caramelizing. She could see the steam from the pan and feel the heat against her face. But she couldn’t smell it.
Gone too was her ability to taste properly. She could pick up basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, umami and sour. But she’d lost what most would consider the essential qualification for a chef: A nuanced palate. She would taste her mom’s curries, but no longer make out the full range of flavours and spices.
“I thought, ‘what is happening?’" she said. "’How is this happening?’”
In the following years, she had other disturbing realizations. She’d walk into a restaurant and everyone else would gasp about the smell of barbecue. Or she’d stick her nose into a wine glass and sniff, searching desperately for traces of fallen fruit, or old shoe leather. Then there was the notice she received from her apartment’s building management. The smell of rotting food was wafting out of her compost bin and into her neighbour’s units.
But she kept these experiences to herself, telling only a few close confidantes. “It was my dirty little secret,” she said.
The 44-year-old figured out ways to adapt. On family trips, her brother, Ajay, and his girlfriend would walk alongside her, describing the smells as they went along. “It smells like there’s bread in the oven. I think there’s mulled wine on the stove. There’s a fire going,” they whispered in Croatia over the holidays.
And in the kitchen, some of her closest chef friends would occasionally pitch in, tasting new recipes for her.
But other than that, she cooked based on intuition, memory and training. By this point, much of her time was spent outside of kitchens anyway. After graduating from George Brown College culinary school in 2002, she was the chef at the Stop Community Food Centres and the Royal Ontario Museum. But much of the past decade she’s dedicated to food activism. In recent years, she’s racked up accolades for leading the overhaul of the food programs at major institutions such as Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and Ryerson University, pioneering in Canada ideas of ethical and sustainable sourcing. Her book on this activism, Take Back the Tray, will be released in May.
In this work, she frequently found herself speaking publicly about the importance of transparency. But in private, she was terrified about what such transparency might look like for her own career.
Just this past fall, Maharaj appeared as a guest judge on Iron Chef Canada. She grew increasingly unsettled as producers in the green room encouraged her and the others to play up their judging of the food for the cameras. As her fellow judges oohed and aahed over a plate of trout amandine, she faked it. “It’s complex and layered,” she said after chewing a forkful. She mimicked a chef’s kiss to the camera.
On the car ride home, she panicked, convinced she’d been found out.
“Did I do a good job lying?” she thought to herself. “How long can I keep this up?”
Smell is sometimes referred to as the forgotten sense. Unlike sight or hearing, scientists still know frustratingly little about how our sense of smell works.
Part of the reason for this is practicality. It’s easier for researchers to access the human eyeball or ear, compared to the sensory neurons in our skull. But among doctors and the general population, there’s also the feeling that the sense of smell is non-essential. Unless we’re using it, or somehow lose it, we rarely stop to think about our ability to smell. So for those suffering from anosmia (the medical term for people who cannot smell) there have traditionally been few answers.
This is why, when Maharaj first began complaining six years ago to doctors about chronic congestion – about perpetually feeling stuffed-up, as if she had a cold, and not being able to smell – she was mostly met with indifference about the latter symptom.
She tried changing her diet, removing dairy, and then wheat. At the advice of a Chinese medicine practitioner, she tried acupuncture. Nothing worked. Without other options, she began popping decongestants nearly every day, just to cope with the congestion.
Finally, two years ago, a specialist figured out the cause of her problems. A CT scan showed that nasal polyps, or small fleshy growths, had formed all over the lining of her nasal passages and sinuses. So early last year, she had surgery to remove them. But even then, standing outside of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto after her surgery and taking her first deep breath in more than six years, she still could not smell.
Her doctor told her to wait and see. But even he’s not sure why she’s still not able to detect smells and whether she’ll ever fully recover.
Up to 15 per cent of adults above the age of 40 have a clinically significant smell disorder, according to Steven Munger, director of the Centre for Smell and Taste at the University of Florida. That figure increases significantly with age – up to 30 per cent for those aged 75 and older.
This includes a variety of different disorders, Munger said. There’s anosmia, or the total loss of smell, as with the case of Maharaj. A milder form of that is hyposmia, or a reduced sense of smell. There’s also parosmia, or distorted smell. That’s when a person sniffs bread baking and smells, say, burnt rubber. And then there’s phantosmia, where people detect smells that don’t really exist.
These disorders can result from a range of causes, Munger said. Sometimes they’re the result of physical damage to the olfactory system, such as a traumatic brain injury. Other times, as in the case of Maharaj, a physical blockage – such as nasal polyps – is to blame. In these cases, the blockage prevents the cloud of odour molecules that make up scent from flowing into the nose or brain.
All of these disorders affect taste too.
Of the myriad ways we perceive flavour, only some – for the most part, the tastes of saltiness, bitterness, sweetness, sourness, and umami – are detected through our taste buds. The rest of the work happens in the nose and the brain.
“That’s one thing that smell is very critical for, flavour perception,” Munger said.
This is because, as we eat, odour chemicals travel from the back of our mouths, up into our nasal cavities, and to our brains. It’s the reason why food tastes blander when we have a cold.
Of the different types of smell disorders, Munger said, the latter type – where physical blockages such as nasal polyps exist – are the ones with the higher success rate of recovery.
In the year since her surgery, Maharaj has had fleeting moments of hope.
During a trip to Bangalore, India last summer, she ordered a bowl of tom yum soup. When the waiter set the bowl in front of her, she thought her brain was short-circuiting. After six years, she could suddenly smell and taste lemongrass, chilli, and dark, pungent fish sauce.
The next morning, she sliced open an Alphonso mango, cutting the sides into a cross-hatch pattern and flipping it open to eat. When she buried her nose into the fruit, she was staggered by a wave of floral, musky sweetness.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, I’m smelling. I’m smelling this mango.’”
For the next two weeks, she could smell. She’d walk around her hotel and smell the flowers in the lobby. She returned home to Toronto and baked cookies in her apartments. She was delighted that she could tell they were done by the smell alone.
But as suddenly as its return, it was gone.
As she described this, Maharaj stood in the kitchen of her apartment. She was making desserts for a fundraiser that night.
She talked as she worked, rolling gumball-sized chocolate-date truffles between her palms. Every once in a while, she’d gesture as she spoke, revealing chocolate-brown circles on each palm, like bear paws.
In the months following that India trip, she had a few other moments of hope. Once, at a yoga class, she caught a whiff of the carpet. Another time, she woke up and smelled coffee. And earlier this month, the scent of her brand of shampoo, Aveda, suddenly popped into her head.
But she’s learned not to trust those moments. The day she thought she smelled coffee, there was no coffee. And moments after she thought she’d smelled shampoo, she inhaled again and it was gone.
To illustrate her point, she retrieved from the cupboard a dusty yellow jar – turmeric for the truffles. She unscrewed the lid and the earthy, faintly bitter smell wafted up. She leaned over, breathing in deeply.
“Nothing,” she said flatly.
Normally, Maharaj has a big laugh and the relentless optimism of an elementary school teacher. She does yoga every morning and the bulletin board above her desk is covered with quotes she’s scribbled on rainbow-coloured Post-Its – everyone from bell hooks to Rupi Kaur to Jay Z.
But recently, she’s noticed she’s feeling down more. One evening, as she sat on the couch with a guy she’d been dating, she realized with a start that she had no idea what he smelled like. Another time, she was hit with the realization that it’s been six years of not smelling Christmases, summer barbecues, or friends’ newborn babies.
She stopped going out to eat as much. She wasn’t enjoying the experience. She’s also slowed down the number of “cheffy-type” events she attends, growing tired of the performance.
“Those are places where people are like, ‘Smell this, taste this, love this.’ I’m just like, ‘I can’t do this anymore. This is not fun.’”
Feelings of isolation are common among those living with anosmia, said Duncan Boak, who runs a Britain-based organization called Fifth Sense that offers support to those with smell disorders. He lost his sense of smell 15 years ago, after a traumatic brain injury from falling down a set of stairs. What followed was a period of depression.
Six years ago, his organization conducted a survey of those suffering from smell disorders in Britain. Of the respondents, he said 43 per cent reported experiencing depression or anxiety.
Part of this, Munger said, could be because the part of the brain that processes odour – the olfactory bulb – is directly connected with the amygdala and hippocampus, which process emotion and memory.
It’s also the reason why smells are so evocative – why the smell of fresh-cut grass turns our mind to summer, or the smell of rose takes Maharaj immediately to saris, and memories of her nani, or “grandmother.”
She stopped working for a moment, a chocolate truffle still buried in one palm, and pausing to brush back her bangs with the back of a finger.
“I’m just really feeling the distance between me and the rest of the world around this right now.”
On a snowy Saturday morning in January, Maharaj sat in her apartment hunched over her iPhone, crafting an Instagram post. “Okay, I’ve been keeping a secret,” it started. She laid out her experiences over the past six years.
She’d discovered recently a “smell training” program that appeared to offer the possibility of recovery. The program, which she found through Fifth Sense, has participants such as Maharaj spend defined periods of time (20 to 30 seconds, twice a day) focused on smelling specific scents. The hope is that repeated exposure will not only train the brain to become more efficient at processing smells, but also trigger the growth of more olfactory receptor cells.
The program was created by Thomas Hummel, a professor in the faculty of medicine at Technische Universitat Dresden in Germany, and rests on the belief that for most humans, the ability to smell can evolve over time.
It relies on research by the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia which, in 1989, conducted a study on humans and their ability to detect androstenone, an odour found in human sweat and pig saliva. Over half of all people – whether they have a smell disorder or not – are unable to detect androstenone. But through repeated exposure to the odour, half of those people who weren’t previously able to smell the chemical were eventually able to detect it.
For Maharaj, the training means sniffing each day from four jars of essential oils: eucalyptus, clove, lemon and rose.
With regular training, Hummel says that anosmia patients can see results in about four months. Still, he offers no guarantees. Much of it, he said, depends on the patient. Younger people tend to have a better chance. And those with anosmia resulting from physical damage appear to have a lower rate of success. Boak of Fifth Sense has tried the program, with little result. He stopped doing it years ago.
But for many people, Hummel said, the training offers, at the very least, some hope. “We’re scientists, but we work with humans,” he said. “That’s how people are. They like to take things into their own hands and become actors.”
The morning Maharaj received her jars and oil was the same day she composed her Instagram post. Just moments after assembling her jars, she took a picture of them, and hit “send.”
“There was a renewed hopefulness,” she said. “It wasn’t just ‘Sorry, kid, we don’t know what’s going on with you.’”
She had also begun suspecting that her secret perhaps wasn’t so dirty after all. “I did the math in my head and was like, ‘How detrimental can it be?’” By that point, she’d been cooking without smell for years. There hadn’t been any disastrous incidents. The food she was cooking still tasted great.
The first comment came within moments. “Sounds really interesting!” one woman wrote. “Wonderful!” wrote another. Many others replied simply with emojis: With big red hearts and thumbs-up signs.
“The real truth is that everybody’s response taught me the hysteria about it all was mostly in my own mind,” she said. “In reality, everybody else was just like … ” she mimicked a shrug.
Part of the response is a testament to the goodwill she’s earned over decades. But part of it too is the unique career she’s built for herself. The fact that she spends more of her time speaking and writing – as opposed to working in a kitchen – allowed her to keep her secret hidden.
For most of her career, she’s been without a restaurant. It’s a fact she used to be self-conscious about, in a world where the eponymous “chef-driven” restaurant was long seen as the pinnacle of success.
But more and more, she’s realized that her career might be a model for the future. She thinks the industry needs to let go of the idea that chefs belong exclusively in restaurants, “and understand chefs have a role to play just in society.”
The chocolate-date truffles she was rolling that afternoon were vegan, and made from ethically sourced cocoa. The turmeric came from a farmer’s co-operative in India, where local producers profit directly. That, she said, should be the chef’s role – to ask the questions: How are these ingredients traded? What is the power dynamic involved? How can I find a way to make a beautiful thing without exploiting anyone?
Finally, once she’d rolled out about half of the truffles, it was time to taste. She popped a whole one into her mouth. She chewed, thinking. She could detect the sweetness of the dates. The bitterness of the chocolate. The turmeric she could not taste at all – possibly because of the “bossiness” of the chocolate.
How did she know it was chocolate?
She paused, then frowned. “It’s probably more informed by the fact that I know it’s there,” she finally admitted. She was disappointed by this.
She knows it’s a long shot that she’ll ever recover completely. Already, her surgeon has warned of the possibility of new polyps. But for the moment, she wants to hold onto the hopefulness.
She read somewhere that the scent of rose inspires joy. That’s why she saves it for last in her lineup of jars each day.
“There is such joy and triumph when I do smell something,” she said.
“‘When it does happen, it’s going to be good.“
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