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Umami – the fifth taste

Lately, I often catch myself analyzing what I eat and what I cook, and in general the food that I come across. The question for me always is why some food combinations and dishes are great tasting and true in flavour, timeless and memorable, and others could be so bland that you almost wish you didn’t spent the time and effort eating them, left apart cooking them.

Normally, one would start thinking and examining what the particular dish consists of in terms of ingredients. I read labels, ask waiters and chefs, or sometimes just studding that thing in front of me, trying to guess what I am about to put in my mouth.

I have to say I am getting better and better at guessing the ingredients which I explain with the combination of two factors: my cooking experience plays a role, plus, the build up of what I call the “crossword puzzle effect”: you start memorizing words that puzzles use frequently without necessarily having them in your vocabulary, and so is with the ingredients commonly used – you become better at expecting and guessing what’s on the label.

Umami rich foods

Umami rich foods

As you can say from your own experience, knowing the ingredients in advance does not guarantee that your pick will be a success. For example, how many times you ordered a dish in a restaurant or a pub because it was described lively and all the ingredients seemed to complement each other, only to find disappointment, swearing to God you’ll never order anything remotely similar again.

Thinking further on the subject, you realise taste, aromas and flavours are probably what give particular food significance and indeed what separates a dull dish from an impressive one. But let’s try and define what these are. Pretty obvious you’ll say: taste is what your mouth detects and aroma is what your nose detects. But it’s the combination of the two what everybody experiences tasting food and what makes up flavour. Flavour is an interesting word, especially for someone like me, who’s not a native speaker. Because flavour is commonly used interchangeably with ‘taste’ one might be get the wrong impression that it’s the same thing. But it’s absolutely not.

There are just few basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, piquant and umami (the savoury taste of which makes the eating experience more pleasurable) and these are detected by the tastebuds of your mouth. And while there are only six basic tastes, there are many thousands of aromas.

I am now at the stage of exploring the different tastes and especially the one that fascinates me most: umami. When I was a kid at school they taught us there are just four basic tastes and I can still vaguely recall the Biology textbook that showed a diagram of the tongue with the assigned specific parts of it to each taste: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. It all turned out to be not exactly like that. First of all, latest research proves that receptors for each taste though unevenly distributed are everywhere in the mouth. And second, no one taught us there is a taste called umami. Most Western societies have recognized umami as a basic taste, however still put bitter and piquant into the same basket. To me piquant is a taste of its own. If you don’t believe me, ask any Asian person and listen their answer.

Coming back to umami,  today, this taste is part of our everyday eating lives. It’s just that many of us don’t know what to call it. The shortest definition of it should be: it’s what gives depth of flavour to food. All food cultures have their umami-rich ingredients, whether it’s soy sauce, seaweed and shiitake mushrooms in Japan or Parmesan and Prosciutto in Italy.

Ok, here comes the science bit…

Umami is a pleasant, savoury taste imparted by glutamate (a type of amino acid) and ribonucleotides (including inosinate and guanylate) which occur naturally in many foods we use on a daily basis including tomatoes, mushrooms, Parmesan, anchovies, olives, balsamic vinegar and many others (ever wondered why Mediterranean cuisine is so popular? Because it’s full packed with umami rich foods, making it so tasty).

Most people don’t recognise umami when they consume it as the taste of umami blends well with other tastes. But what it does is expanding and taking flavours to another level helping make food taste delicious. Most of aged, cured, dried and fermented foods are umami-rich foods: Worcestershire sauce, Marmite, ketchup, sauerkraut and even human breast milk.

And now comes a bit of history:

In 1907, Japanese chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda of the Imperial University of Tokyo was curious to know what made his kombu (a type of seaweed) soup so tasty. Professor Ikeda discovered two facts: one is that the broth of seaweed contains glutamate and the other that glutamate causes the taste sensation ‘umami’. What’s umami everybody asked. Umami is the fifth taste, calling it so after a common Japanese word that is usually translated as ‘deliciousness’.

Professor Kikunae Ikeda and kombu sea weed

Professor Kikunae Ikeda and kombu sea weed

He attributed the taste to isolated glutamic acid crystals. When the protein containing glutamic acid is broken down – by cooking, fermentation or ripening – it becomes glutamate. Thus the seasoning, MonoSodium Glutamate (MSG), was born in 1909 and arrived in the United States in 1917. From there it spread throughout the world. Today MSG is by far the most widely spread  food additive on the market and is used in canned soups, crackers, meats, salad dressings, frozen dinners and  you name it, it’ there!

There’s much debate whether the man-made additive is bad for you or if it’s even dangerous. I really don’t want to know because I know for a fact that nothing artificial is worth as much as the real stuff.  So my simple advice is: create your own umami experience by learning what foods contain it and what combinations enhance it. Think about it next time you create your pizza!

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