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Ooooo MAAHHH mee.
This has become one of my favorite words. I just love saying it – umami, umami, umami. It sounds like a Buddhist chant – a very sensuous word. It is also one of my favorite tidbits of food information.
The discovery of umami begins with Professor Kikunae Ikeda early in the 1900s. He felt that the four tastes – sweet, salty, sour and bitter – could not fully explain the rich flavors of foods like cheese, mushrooms and meat. He began experimenting with a broth of the seaweed Konbu. Konbu is a staple of the Japanese diet and has a unique savory flavor distinct from the traditional four tastes.
He found that glutamate crystals extracted from the seaweed reproduced the same flavor sensation as savory foods. Glutamate is an amino acid – one of the basic building blocks of protein. One of the first uses of this new information was in Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). MSG has since been used as a flavor enhancer in foods and can be an issue in a healthy diet because of the large amount of sodium that it adds to foods. We now know that other chemicals are also responsible for activating the umami taste buds. Inosinate and guanylate in foods create savory flavors as well.
For more information:
UMAMI Information Center
The Discovery of Umami
Society for Research on Umami Taste
Umami is usually defined as the taste of foods that are pungent or aromatic, like mushrooms or cheese or roasted chicken. It is sometimes described as “savory,” but it is much more complex.
The umami taste has long been recognized by the Japanese, but only recently seriously considered by other scientists. The feeling of Western researchers had been that there were only four tastes. This was based on scientific “proof” of four taste buds, each corresponding to their respective basic taste: salt, sweet, bitter and sour. All flavors were felt to be the sensation of one or more of the four taste buds being stimulated. The perception of savory foods was simply felt to be the combination of two or more of the taste buds being activated.
It is not so simple, however. As with many things scientific, “proof” can be a moving target, and umami taste buds have now been “discovered” by the West.
Knowing about this fifth taste bud has been critical for me as a chef. Years ago, during my restaurant training, someone told me that the definition of “gourmet” was when all of the flavors of the separate ingredients in a particular dish were distinguishable. This person opined that in the perfect tomato sauce, for example, one should be able to taste each individual ingredient in the completed recipe – garlic, onions, olive oil, basil, tomatoes, salt, pepper, etc..
I had always worked to create recipes based on this ideal—and I still do—but recently I have come to consider the balance of flavors—not on each individual ingredient, but rather on the individual tastes. If a particular dish is just salty enough and has an umami undertone with a touch of sweetness balancing any sour or bitter flavors, then it is clearly more appealing. The better the balance in a recipe, the more delicious the dish.
Emphasizing and enhancing umami flavors makes it much easier to successfully create healthy recipes that taste great, Because umami flavors seem to convey a feeling of comfort, focusing on those flavors helps me create dishes that are emotionally as well as physically satisfying. For instance, roasting mushrooms until they are browned to the point of being caramelized intensifies their rich umami flavor. This can be done with almost no added fat, so the resulting recipes are lush and satisfying with fewer fat and calories.
Similarly, using the finest quality Parmesans or other aged cheeses may be higher in fat, but the better quality cheese has a more intense umami flavor—so you can use less in a particular recipe. Just one ounce of authentic Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano adds a lovely, complex, mellow flavor to a recipe that the cheap domestic parmesan in the green box never could.
As you are looking at recipes, cooking meals and eating dinner, think about the umami flavors in the dish. How can they be enhanced? By paying attention to the balance of all five flavors you can understand the importance that each of the taste buds plays in how satisfying your food is.
September 23, 2005
Last updated: 02/02/06