An ode to umami 

A brief history of the beloved — and sometimes controversial — 'fifth taste'

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO - THE FIFTH TASTE Umami is a controversial and often misunderstood basic taste that is commonly found in many foods, including dashi, a soup stock that is a staple of Japanese cooking.
  • Shutterstock Photo
  • THE FIFTH TASTE Umami is a controversial and often misunderstood basic taste that is commonly found in many foods, including dashi, a soup stock that is a staple of Japanese cooking.

Here's a nifty bit of trivia to unleash on the unwitting guests at your next dinner party: Get them to name each of the world's basic tastes.

Chances are even the dimmest of diners will be able to rattle off the four most obvious answers: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. But the fifth? Basically the Ringo Starr of tastes, because few people have heard of it compared to its superstar gustatory brethren — at least on this side of the globe.

Of course, I'm talking about umami, the latest and most controversial taste to be added to the scientific record. If you're unsure of what exactly umami tastes like, you're not alone. It's probably the hardest one to pin down, but I'd be willing to wager a piping hot bowl of ramen you've experienced it before.

Taken from the Japanese, umami translates literally to mean a "pleasant, savoury taste," which doesn't help us much. Nothing to write home about on its own, umami is considered a complimentary flavour that serves to round out a dish's taste profile and enhance its palatability, leaving you with a brothy or meaty aftertaste that coats the tongue.

We experience umami through our glutamate taste receptors, making it distinct from saltiness. When foods age, like cheese, or meat begins to cook, the proteins within break down. During that process, the proteins separate into different parts, and one of those molecules is called the L-glutamate — the one responsible for umami. You can get your umami fix from a wide variety of fatty meats, seafood, vegetables, aged cheeses and even green tea. Foods that are rich in umami include tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, tuna, cod, seaweed, soy sauce, carrots, and many others.

While umami has existed for as long as we've had taste buds, Western food scientists were skeptical of its existence until the turn of the century. In Asia, however, it's been considered a distinct taste profile since at least 1908, when a scientist at the University of Tokyo first recognized it.

Dr. Kikunae Ikeda — basically the OG of umami — discovered that glutamate, glutamic acid and naturally occurring MSG made up the chemical compound in umami. His discovery actually happened by accident when, sitting down for dinner with his family, he noticed that his cucumber soup was tastier than usual thanks to the kombu, or kelp, he had added to the broth. He would go on to study kelp in detail and would eventually find that it contained this specific chemical compound, giving it its delicious umami flavour.

The purveyors of cheap Chinese takeout the world over also have Ikeda to thank for processed MSG after he uncovered a way to extract it from wheat and soybean, leading to a global explosion in the much maligned flavour enhancer.

Even with all the years of Ikeda's research, it wasn't until 2000 when scientists were able to find a link between the mysterious "fifth taste" and the brain, identifying the body's glutamate taste receptors for the first time.

Still, umami is not without its controversy.

Some still lament its categorization as a basic taste, claiming it should be considered as a subset of saltiness, while others have raised (legitimate) concerns about MSG's many associated health risks.

Even so, droves of North American chefs have followed in the footsteps of their Asian counterparts, creating dishes that harness umami's flavour and spreading this misunderstood taste to the masses — whether we know it or not.



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