I Was Born Without A Sense Of Smell

A personal account of what it’s like to not be able to smell the wok hei in food, or flowers from loved ones 

I will never know what wok hei is, nor will I ever enjoy the sweet scent of roses or understand what it means when the recipe books say “Fry onion till fragrant”.

You see, I don’t have a sense of smell.

I can sniff at anything, be it a rosebud or stinky socks, but nothing registers in my brain. So basically I just, well, breathe.

I discovered this genetic malfunction by accident, while riding the school bus at eight years old. The route would take us past a junction where a famous hokkien mee stall was located, within a coffee shop. Every time the bus made a turn past that coffee shop, all the kids would run to the nearest window, stick their heads out and inhale deeply.

I did the same, but never understood the point of doing so. 

I asked my twin, who also rode the bus, to explain why, and that’s when the discovery came about. I also learned that I wasn’t the only one affected – two cousins, on my mother’s side of the family, have the same affliction. And given the genetic association, my condition was never rectified or officially diagnosed because lacking a sense of smell is not detrimental to my overall health.

So yes, I’ve gone through life never knowing the power of scents. When asked, prior to a massage, what oils I’d like to use, I just reply, “Your most popular one.” While cooking, I can only time how long I stir-fry something or finish each step of a recipe based on the colour or texture of the ingredients. When I receive flowers, I have no reason to hold them to my nose for a sniff.

And if something’s burning, and smoke is not visible or apparent, I am completely oblivious to the fact (thankfully, my flat is fire-insured).

Many question my confirmation that I can taste flavours, since they are complemented by smell. I can differentiate sweet from sour, bitter from salty, and everything in between. But I cannot appreciate the aroma of fresh herbs, and I can’t recognise spices in a curry.

If I was blind-folded for a taste-test of tomato ketchup and barbecue sauce, I wouldn’t know the difference.

Since I’ve never known what it’s like to smell, I guess you could say ignorance is bliss. But do I feel like I missing out? Definitely. I yearn to experience the same delight of friends or family who remark that my dish/cake/dessert smells so good, in the same way I yearn to know my partner’s special smell, or be able to fully appreciate the floral teas I drink each day.

But at the same time, I’m grateful that I can’t experience the sensory assault of a soiled diaper, durians or a Dutch Oven (no, not the cooking accessory)!

And life is by no means less beautiful.

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