Enjoying Food During Cancer Treatment

Welcome to our monthly recipe blog from Ryan Riley at Life Kitchen

Ryan Riley is an author, cook and food stylist. He is a co-founder of Life Kitchen, an organisation that provides free cookery classes, events and resources for people with cancer.

One of the lesser-known side-effects of treatment for cancer is a dulling or loss of taste. This can have a huge impact on the lives of people living with the disease, not only physically but also psychologically, leading to feelings of isolation and disconnection from those closest to them.

After losing his mother to lung cancer, and experiencing the impacts her change in taste had, Ryan decided to do something radical to improve the lives of people in a similar situation and this led to the creation of Life kitchen.

Life Kitchen is North-East based, their flagship cookery school is in Mowbray Park Sunderland, Ryan’s home city. However, they take classes all over the UK collaborating with charities and organisations that work with people living with cancer.

Sharing a meal with those closest to us is something often taken for granted. Many of our guests talk to us about feeling as though they are not able to join in or appreciate what someone has made for them. Working with Professor Barry Smith (founding director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses) Ryan uses the science behind taste loss and offers some twists to recipes that can achieve amazing results.

Here Ryan shares some of his tried-and-tested recipes for simple, but delicious dishes which aim to help people living with cancer find enjoyment during tough times and reconnect with the simple pleasure that good food shared can bring.

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the founding principles of Life Kitchen was to create recipes that have strong, layered flavours and focus on ingredients which are rich in umami.

It is currently understood that we have five basic tastes: sweet; salty; bitter; sour and umami. Umami is found in foods like soy sauce, mushrooms, miso, fish and cheese. Umami can act to amplify and heighten the response of our other taste buds, creating more flavour, this is seen in popular recipes such as salted caramel.

We like to use what we call “super umami” in our recipes; this means adding more than one umami-rich ingredient to further boost flavour. Evidence of this is in many foods we are already familiar with such as ham & cheese sandwiches. Umami also helps increase saliva production so foods that are umami laden are quite literally mouth-watering! Foods rich in umami are also often good sources of protein.

You can see why at Life Kitchen we are huge fans of umami! The recipe I’m giving you today is a great example of super umami, layering more than one sources of umami – marmite, cheese and mushrooms – to give it that irresistible “super umami” which can be so important if your taste has been dulled.

It is said that marmite is an ingredient you either love or hate, but I’m more of a middle-grounder. I adore the richness it adds to dishes, in this recipe its bold flavour balances beautifully with the saltiness of the cheddar. I then add an extra umami boost with the mushrooms, and the tarragon finishes the dish with a punchy aniseed note.

This is a really quick and easy recipe, that can be prepared in minutes for a quick snack or light lunch. It might even change your opinion on marmite if you would describe yourself as a “hater”! I hope you enjoy it!

Marmite and Cheddar Crumpets
with Tarragon Mushrooms

Serves: 2


2 crumpets
Unsalted butter, for spreading and frying
1 tsp Marmite
Olive oil
20g vintage Cheddar, grated
6 chestnut mushrooms, sliced
A few sprigs of tarragon
1 tsp maple syrup
1 lemon, zest and juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Toast the crumpets to your liking, then spread them equally with butter and then Marmite. Set aside.

Place a frying pan on a medium heat and add a glug of oil. When hot, add the cheddar in two little piles, keeping each pile in a rough crumpet-sized circle. Place one crumpet on top of each cheesy circle, Marmite-side downwards, and fry for about 2 minutes, until the cheese is melted, golden and crunchy. Invert the crumpets on to plates, placing them cheese-side upwards, then set aside.

Using the same frying pan, add the mushrooms with a little butter and a drop more oil. Fry on a high heat for about 5-6 minutes, until the mushrooms take on plenty of colour. Add the tarragon and cook for 1 minute, then add the maple syrup, the lemon zest and juice, and turn to coat everything evenly. Remove from the heat.

Top both crumpets with equal amounts of the mushroom mixture, then season to taste and serve immediately.


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