We all know about the basic tastes right? Sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Sometimes we mix together sweet pineapples with vinegar-based sauces into a classic sweet and sour for a stir-fry or combine the subtle sweet taste and texture of scallops with the salty crispness of freshly sautéed chorizo. We enjoy the bitterness of a Gin and tonic served with salty nuts or the sweetness of a cosmopolitan served with twist of bitter orange.
But did you know there was indeed a fifth taste that we have all been enjoying for some time without realising that it was a whole different dimension in taste experience.
What is umami?
The Umami taste, first defined by a Japanese scientist over a hundred years ago sits exactly on our palates in the same way the aforementioned tastes do.
Umami is a taste that some go crazy over; possibly before knowing what it was they would simply relate it to a basic salt flavour. But it is so much more than that.
Umami is that caramelised part of the lasagne that has encrusted itself to the side of the casserole dish. It is the brown sticky mass underneath the roast chicken, it is the melted anchovy on the pizza, it’s the cheese that has dripped off the toast and hardened into a flat orange crisp on the baking tray. Or if you’re not a hater, it’s that slathering of marmite on a crisp piece of toast.
To try and encompass what umami is, it’s the flavour to amplify all flavours. The one that hits you and makes you say ‘mmmmm’ out loud. It is in itself a flavour that can only be described as ‘savoury’ as there is no English word synonymous with the word umami.
Here comes the science bit
Kikunae Ikeda was the scientist to first proclaim that there was indeed a fifth taste. Ikeda, noticed that this flavour was apparent in tomatoes, cheese and meats but it was strongest in a stock called Dashi which is made from dried kelp (seaweed) and dried fish flakes. The stock dashi is the base for the soup, Miso, a popular and traditional Japanese soup.
Many foods such as meats, cheeses and fish contain some amount of naturally occurring glutamic acid; which is an amino acid produced by the human body and present in many foodstuffs. It is one of the building blocks of protein. Hence protein rich foods contain high levels of glutamic acid; thick roast chickens, grilled steaks, toasted cheese and grilled fish, dried mushrooms, soy sauce. When the protein containing glutamic acid is broken down by cooking, fermentation or ripening– it becomes glutamate.
Ikeda cleverly stabilised the chemical glutamate, mixed it with salt and water to make the controversial ingredient Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and quickly patented it. It became a household condiment called Aji-no-moto meaning the ‘essence of taste’
One of the most enthralling discoveries surrounding the umami phenomenon is that glutamate is present in most food stuff and is a protein that is essential to our body function. It’s surprising to know that human milk has high levels of glutamate, almost 10 times more than cow’s milk .
Mothers’ milk offers two taste enhancers, lactose as sugar and glutamate as umami. Which is why babies enjoy it so much and will naturally go on, if offered the right foods, to enjoy other sweet and umami flavours as they grow.
So when you add an anchovy on a pizza base, melt the cheese, grate parmesan onto some rather dull tasting pasta, or spread a spoonful of marmite on some toast; you have created a taste sensation that will stimulate your taste buds and neural receptors with the fifth taste that is; umami.