(Originally posted on Sensorium, July 9 2014)
While sweet-sour-bitter-salty flavours were identified as basic flavours thousand of years ago, writes Larissa Dubecki, umami was not identified until 1909.
The person who identified and named the flavour was Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda, who then turned entrepreneur, establishing a factory producing monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is a concentrated crystalline extract of one type of glutamate and is widely used as a flavour booster in food. (See this link to the Japanese Patent Office.)
Even though the flavour was identified over 100 years ago, it is only now widely coming into public recognition in the West. In fact, Dubecki, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, announced that 2014 is the “year of umami”.
What exactly is umami?
The remarkable Barb Stuckey, in her book Taste: What You’re Missing, admits that even she faces challenges in writing about the fifth “basic taste”:
Umami is the most difficult taste to explain because the term is not commonly used outside the world of food or outside Japan, where the term originated. (p. 39)
The words she uses to describe umami are “meaty, savory, satisfying, or full”.
Think caramelized, juicy hamburger.
Or Vegemite. Or bottled tomato sauce.
Or, for Asian flavours, think of “miso, dashi and seaweed, soy sauce and fish sauce”, which Dubecki calls “umami-rich building blocks”.
You can certainly put umami with umami. Spaghetti Bolognese does just that: cooked tomatoes, meat, Parmesan cheese, all umami-rich ingredients. (Add mushrooms for an additional umami boost.)
Barb Stuckey writes that everything becomes more delicious if you combine it with the right umami-rich molecules:
Umami makes the flavor of what’s in your mouth feel full of depth. It fills your mouth with more of the flavour of the food it accompanies. (p. 249)
Umami has another sensory characteristic: it contributes “mouthfeel”. Wikipedia says it gives a “coating sensation over the tongue”. Malcolm Gladwell, in a 2004 New Yorker article about ketchup, quotes Gary Beauchamp of the Monell Chemical Senses Centre:
Umami adds body …. If you add it to a soup, it makes the soup seem like it’s thicker—it gives it sensory heft. It turns a soup from salt water into a food.
Even though the word “umami” originated in Japan, it is found, to some extent, in all cuisines. This map shows the various common sources of umami flavourings in different parts of the world.
In spite of its ubiquity, however, umami’s place in the “basic tastes” is still debated.
Stuckey, for one, argues for its acceptance into the “basic taste” group, if for no other reason than, in 2000, scientists discovered we have receptors specifically for this flavour component on our tongues (p. 246).
The chemical compounds that set off these receptors are glutamates, found naturally in many foods. Even human breast milk contains levels of glutamate almost 20 times higher than cows’ milk (Stuckey, p. 247)—which might help to explain the nurturing, restorative value of umami-rich broths like chicken soup.
Stuckey gives a clear explanation of the molecular processes behind umami:
When the large protein molecules in foods are broken down into smaller molecules, they become more flavorful and develop umami. This breakdown is usually a result of cooking, fermenting, drying, or aging … When meat is aged and cooked, or when cheese is aged, the protein breaks down into smaller pieces. (p. 247)
In spite of the fact that glutamates occur naturally, great suspicion surrounds MSG in the west. It has been accused of making people ill (“Chinese food syndrome”) or as being something “used by lazy chefs as an excuse for flavour, not an enhancement”.
But actually, many researchers believe that MSG is probably not that bad for you.
There’s not much difference between buying refined, crystallised salt to shake onto your food and buying MSG to use as a seasoning, but for some reason we demonise MSG. I believe this has something to do with our lack of understanding of umami. At reasonable levels MSG—again, like salt—is not to be feared. (p. 245)
Adam Fleischman is the founder of Umami Burgers, a chain that opened in 2009 in Los Angeles, but now has branches across the US. The classic Umami Burger beef patty is served with:
grilled shitake mushrooms, roasted tomato, caramelized onions, house-made ketchup, and a brilliant jolt of unexpected crunch in the form of a panfried Parmesan cheese crisp. (Stuckey, p. 250)
Natasha Geiling in the Smithsonian Magazine writes that the flavours of the Umami Burger are further boosted with homemade “umami dust”, made from dried mushrooms and seaweed. And their homemade umami sauce is made from soy and Marmite.
These burgers deliver up to 2,185 mg of glutamate—all from natural sources.
(In Melbourne, fast food joint Nshry—yes, that’s the correct spelling—serves a Umami burger that looks exactly like the original from Umami Burger, and even has a crispy Parmesan disc.)
Stuckey interviewed Adam Fleischman for her book Taste. He tells her that:
umami was probably the taste that you were wanting when you craved certain foods … In American foods, pizza and burgers were the ones that were the most crave-worthy. And they seemed to be the ones that had the most umami in them, with the most perfect balance of umami flavours … (p. 250)
It does seem to be difficult for many people to differentiate between salty and umami flavours, and Stuckey points out that many foods with umami are also salty. Parmesan cheese is one example (p. 245). Try her “Isolating umami” exercise (link below).
But umami isn’t just for burger lovers.
Recent research suggests that adding umami to the even the blandest foods might help underweight and frail older people regain their lost appetites and (literally) get their saliva flowing—which in turn helps them to taste their food (Stuckey, p. 249)
Which only goes to show that umami is a flavour for all ages.
Now, please excuse me, I have a craving for pizza and there’s something I have something to do. Urgently.
• Experience umami and learn to differentiate it from salt by doing Barb Stuckey’s simple exercise to isolate umami flavour. (Linked with kind permission.) You will have to buy some MSG, but you can, without too much anxiety, go ahead and use the entire bottle in moderation. (That is, you can use it unless you have a sensitivity to it, as anyone can have to any foodstuff.)
• Read Natasha Geiling’s article, including a look at research into the harmfulness—or otherwise—of MSG: “It’s the Umami, Stupid. Why the Truth about MSG Is so easy to Swallow”, Smithsonian.com, November 8 2013.
• Read more on whether or not MSG is harmful. This short article, “What Is MSG? Is It Bad for You?”, by Katherine Zeratsky, is from the trustworthy Mayo Clinic.
• Mindfully and slowly, taste ketchup: On September 6 2004, Malcolm Gladwell published “The Ketchup Conundrum”, a wonderful New Yorker article (Australians would say the less alliterative “tomato sauce conundrum”).
He points out that this basic grocery item has a complex and satisfying flavour profile:
The taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?
• Investigate how top chefs integrate umami flavours. Then you can make their recipes: The Umami Information Centre website has a great deal of interesting reading about umami. This page lists top chefs from many countries, including Brazil, Peru, Japan, and the Philippines—and those are just the first four! If you click on the pictures, you can read their thoughts on what umami contributes to their food.
• Check out your local “best burgers” for a hit of umami. Just about everywhere has its own “best” on-line list.
• Tell me: what is your favourite umami food, with a great savoury, “meaty”, full flavour? (Don’t forget, “meaty” doesn’t mean your favourite umami-rich food actually has to be meat.)