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Comfort food: Ochazuke, made with rice, tea, pickles and seaweed (©AGNES MEATH BAKER)


When you are ill most food tastes awful. Why are there no sections of the cookbook which deal with that? I had a dry, achy, snotty, exhausting cold, customary for the time of year, and for a week nothing tasted right. For three or four days I could taste nothing at all. The thing I most enjoyed was cubes of Hartley’s strawberry jelly straight from the packet. Revolting, you may think, but this was at peak illness, and I could barely even taste that it was sweet. The only thing I got from it was texture, which at that moment felt extremely valuable: plasticky, rubbery, it could have been petrochemical and I wouldn’t have known. It’s alarming to have your normal sensory inputs out of whack.

Eventually I got the hang of eating for illness, which was really eating without taste. I became more sensitive to temperature. Tepid food seemed disgusting. Icy, gloopy-textured foods were in, or hot things, crunchy, hard, sour things, noisy things. Yoghurt was fine, but milk suddenly felt chalky-textured. Chicken soup, unsurprisingly, was ideal. I fantasised about having a Thermos flask of chicken broth beside my bed at night. My most successful actual food made in this period was leftover roast potato, cabbage and chorizo in extremely nice homemade chicken stock, close enough to caldo verde that I felt I had made real food. After tasting I cheated and added some MSG, which for me vastly improved it — since I could literally only taste a powerful umami flavour (savoury), and nothing else, I thought I should Lean In to that. (MSG can be bought from Asian supermarkets. It looks like salt or sugar. It is not bad for you. If you can’t find pure MSG, “chicken powder” is pretty much the same thing but with extra spices.) At lunch, my mouth couldn’t distinguish between the soft inside and the soft outside of most sandwiches. The MVP of workday lunches here was the jambon beurre (Pret sells one for £2.50): salty, strongly textured bread, sour crunchy pickle, and butter; I finally understood the point of butter in a sandwich — the soft, slidy texture, which I ordinarily avoid, was a blessing. But mostly I remember Strepsils, Lemsip Max and the occasional Grether’s blackcurrant pastille (to break the monotony).

When I cooked for other people I was conscious that I was putting more salt, more garlic, more lemon and chilli than normal — I just wanted to feel something. Pungent aromatic things punched through the fog: black pepper, lemongrass, ginger. Neat spirits did better than beer (odd and sour) or wine (just sweet, or nothingy). My uncle Thomas’s home-infused herbal vodkas (rosemary in particular), or slightly warmed Bulleit rye whiskey. Sake, hot, in a very small cup because of your flu-weakened arms, means you are obeying the NHS’s request for you to drink warm, nourishing fluids. I asked other people what they felt like eating while ill, and they more or less all said “comfort food”. I honestly think they were misremembering what being ill felt like. One of my sisters just said, “anything anyone else will make for me”, which seemed accurate.

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