When we were growing up, there learned that there were four basic tastes: salt, sweet, sour and bitter. We were told that our taste buds had special taste receptors in particular zones on our tongues that detected these four tastes and that all other components of flavor came from our olfactory sense–the sense of smell.
Well, it turns out that what we learned in middle school about tastes, our tongues and noses, was not quite complete or correct.
There is a fifth basic taste.
It is called “umami,” and a Japanese scientist named Kitunae Ikeda isolated one compound which contibutes this taste back in 1908. Working with a seaweed broth, he isolated the amino acid, glutamate, as one of the sources for the taste which is described as “meaty, rich, savory and satisfying.” Glutamate itself was already a known substance, having been discovered in 1866 by a German chemist named Dr. Karl Ritthausen who discovered it while studying gluten in wheat.
“Umami” itself is a compound Japanese word, from the root words, “umai” meaning “delicious,” and “mi,” meaning “essence,” and while it is often used to describe the flavor enhancing ability of the salt form of glutamate, ,monosodium glutamate, that is not the only proper context for its useage.
In fact, researchers have found that umami accurately describes the flavor of many amino acids and proteins. In 2000, researchers at the University of Miami discovered the taste receptor for umami, which essentially proves that umami is a basic taste, for which humans had evolved a hunger. This receptor, named “taste-mGluR4” responds not only to glutamate, but in greater and lesser degrees, to every other amino acid and nucelotide.
Considering the myriad of uses to which amino acids are put in the human body, it is no wonder we are programmed to enjoy their flavors. Amino acids are necessary in building muscles, enzymes and other chemicals necessary to bodily function.
So, what does all of this mean to cooks?
Does this mean we need to study chemistry and put MSG in everything?
It means we just need to look at what foods have large supplies of naturally occurring glutamates and amino acids and combine them with the principles we already know of good cooking, to help us make our dishes even more delicious.
It isn’t like any of these ingredients are new or anything.
People all over the world have been cooking with glutamate and amino acid rich foods for thousands of years.
Take a look at the foods surrounding the new cookbook, The Fifth Taste, above, and think about how many of them you have in your kitchen right now. If you are like me, you probably have plenty of umami sitting in your cupboards, refrigerators, shelves and countertops, just waiting to add goodness to your next meal. A quick glance at my illustration should identify soy sauce, nori, dried and fresh shiitake mushrooms, red wine, truffle oil, parmesan cheese, sun dried tomatoes and tomato paste.
Every serious cook in the world is bound to have one or two of those ingredients in their kitchen at any given time. The concatenation of jars, bottles, tubes, packages and loose items above are just what I pulled off my shelves this morning when I went on a mission to find good examples of umami-rich foods.
Over the next few days, look for posts specifically listing and identifying umami rich foods from both the East and the West, recipes featuring my favorite flavor and a review of the new cookbook, The Fifth Taste: Cooking With Umami by David and Anna Kasabian.
The upshot of all of this is, if you don’t know umami now, you will by the time I am finished with you.
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