As It Happens·Q&A

Lemons, spices and sour milk: How a restaurant critic trained herself to smell again after COVID-19

When New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao lost her sense of smell after getting COVID-19, she used a technique called "smell training" to get it back.

Tejal Rao used a process called 'smell training' to regain the sense she lost

A stock image of a women smelling an orange. New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao says she's regained her sense of smell after using a technique called smell training. (DimaBerlin/Shutterstock)

When New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao lost her sense of smell after getting COVID-19 in December, she started sniffing the spices in her kitchen and lemons in her backyard to get it back. 

It's a technique called smell training, and before March 2020 it didn't get that much attention. But when millions of people around the world found themselves unable to smell after contracting COVID-19, it suddenly became a lifeline. 

Anosmia, or loss of smell, has been identified as one possible symptom of COVID-19 in some people. 

Rao wrote about her journey to regain her sense of smell for the New York Times, and she spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the experience. Here is part of their conversation. 

A lot of people describe a moment when they suddenly realize they've lost their sense of smell. What was that moment for you? 

I was at home in Los Angeles. I was stepping into the shower and I thought that I was smelling a new smell at first, something I couldn't really identify. 

And within a couple of minutes, it became clear that that wasn't a new smell. It was a blank. It was a total loss of smell. It was very scary.

Lemons from Rao's backyard, which she used for smell training. (Tejal Rao)

As you move through the day, there's so many things that we smell and we depend on. So what was that experience like? 

My first thought was actually, you know, how am I going to do my job?

But the truth is, that's sort of the least of your worries if you've lost your sense of smell. It can be quite dangerous. You know, you might be unaware of smoke from a fire. You might not notice a gas leak. Your nose is constantly giving you all of this crucial information about your surroundings. So it's really quite important beyond pleasure and food and deliciousness. 

How did you hear about this technique of smell training? 

I spoke to a woman named Chrissi Kelly, who lives in the U.K., and she founded AbScent, which is ... a non-profit organization for people with anosmia.

And when she got sick in 2012 and lost her sense of smell, no one really recommended smell training. It's become very popular now, in part because she looked into a lot of the scientific research that had been done and taught herself smell training and then shared that technique with this whole online community of people with anosmia.

Can you walk us through a small training session? 

What you want to do is open up a little vial or jar or something — an essential oil, let's say a rose flavoured essential oil, and bring it up to your nose. 

Instead of taking a deep breath, you take these tiny little sniffs. Chrissi calls them "bunny sniffs," which is a very helpful way to think about it for me. 

You take in these tiny sniffs and that brings more of the aroma to your olfactory cleft and then you just take time. It's almost like being in therapy. 

You think, you visualize, you take notes. Chrissi used the term "listening." Because it's very hard to talk about smelling without using metaphors, and it is kind of like that. You're waiting and waiting to get some information. 

Spices that Rao used to get her sense of smell back. (Tejal Rao)

What were the smells that started to come back? 

I sort of turned to my kitchen and I turned to ingredients: fish sauce bottles, fresh herbs, whole spices.

But actually, the first smell that came back was awful for me. It was spoiled milk. I opened a bottle of milk to pour into my tea and it made me gag. But I was really happy about it because I was happy to have any smell sensation back. So it thrilling, actually. 

I understand you spoke with a Canadian who went viral on TikTok after demonstrating how to use burnt Seville oranges to revive scents. What did you learn from him? 

That's right. I talked to Kemar Lalor, whose mother Trudy-Ann is from Jamaica. And they have a restaurant ... called Big G's 241 Jerk Chicken in Ontario and the family runs it together. 

And they have this remedy ... for any time someone in their family is feeling sick, has a cold or has the flu. 

They take a whole raw orange, put it over a gas flame and completely char the peel so that it's totally black all over, and then cut it off with a knife, and take the hot pulp from the orange, mix it with a little sugar and eat it with a spoon. 

And when Kemar put a video for that process up on TikTok, it went viral, and millions of people were trying the technique. They were calling it the "orange remedy" or the "Jamaican orange remedy."

What were the smells you missed the most? 

That's such a personal question. I did miss food immediately, but I also missed the smells that sort of make me feel close and connected to the people I love. You know, I missed the smell of my husband, his hair, his T-shirt at the end of the day.

I missed even sort of the yucky smells. You know, I miss the smell of my dog's breath, which is not pleasant, but I found myself missing it all the same. 

And how much of it is back now? 

It's hard to put a number on it. You know, I want to say it's completely back, but the truth is that because this process is non-linear, there's still moments or days where I can't access something. And it's very frustrating. So it feels like it's all the way back, but I have to kind of remind myself it's not and keep smell training. 

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by John McGill. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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