Book Review: The Fifth Taste

It has been a while since I have actually reviewed a book here, so I thought I would redress the situation with one of the cookbooks I received as a gift during the Generic Winter Holiday celebration.

My regular readers are probably aready a bit familiar with this work, as they have been reading my series of posts on the subject of umami, or the fifth basic taste. Written by David and Anna Kasabian, The Fifth Taste: Cooking With Umami, is a very good introduction to the scientific basis for quantifying umami as a basic taste, with simplified explanations of the chemistry and physiology involved that are enlightening, but not overly complicated.

In truth, I mainly was glad to have the book for the opening chapters alone: the history of umami, the recent scientific findings that confirmed that it was one of the basic tastes that the human tongue can discern, the revelation that umami was the flavor of amino acids, and the listing of ingredients that feature umami were all of great value to me. These chapters take up the first 33 pages of the book; most of the rest of the slender volume (296 pages altogether) is taken up by an extensive index, a list of ingredient sources, a profile of the chefs who contributed recipes and of course, the recipes that make up the meat of the book.

What I found most interesting about the book is that while the authors list countless Asian ingredients as great sources of umami, very few of the recipes, even including the chefs’ contributions, really looked to Asian culinary traditions for inspiration. Nor, generally, were Asian umami ingredients used to flavor Western-style foods–primarily, the recipes contained ingredients such as tomatoes, beans, red wines, anchovies, mushrooms and corn. Over and over, these same ingredients were repeated in the recipes, while fish sauce, which is touted in the first chapter as probably the richest source of umami, is relegated to only a handful of recipes.

In truth, while I value the general information in the opening chapters, I was not overly impressed with the quality or range of recipes in the rest of the book. Chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Rick Bayless, Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger and Nobuyuki Matsuhisa all contributed recipes, and while many of them looked quite good, none of them particularly impressed me as anything new, earth-shattering or even that they particularly were created in order to boost the umami flavors to the maximum level.

They mostly seemed thrown together, rather in a hurry, and tacked on as an afterthought, in order to supplement and pad the rather limited amount of information present in the book.

That said, I did enjoy and eagerly devour the information on umami that the book presented, even as I was disappointed by the recipes, and I have since cooked several dishes where I added small amounts of umami-containing ingredients to see if it boosted the overall flavor profile of the dish.

Indeed, it did.

And for that, I do have the authors to thank, because it was their slender volume which opened my eyes to the possibilities of umami.

All in all, I am glad I have the book, and I feel that I can recommend it to all folks who like to geek about and research obscure topics in food. While umami is presently an obscure topic and this book is probably the first cookbook devoted entirely to the subject, I do not think it will be the last. I am curious, of course, to see what future research into the fifth taste will bring us, but until then, I will keep tinkering away with my Asian umami ingredients, and see what wonders I can cook up on my own.


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  1. I’m happy you’ve made a book review, you know I like these a lot! And this one made me curious about your previous umami posts that I haven’t had the time to read yet!

    Comment by ilva — January 18, 2006 #

  2. Barbara,

    You’re way ahead of the NYTIMES!!!

    I hope to see this reviewed on The Paper Palate!!!

    Comment by Rose — January 18, 2006 #

  3. Hi Barbara – I was leafing through this book at one of the local bookstore, and can say your review is so very accurate. The first few chapters are quite interesting; but the recipes were really not. Great review!

    Comment by Kirk — January 18, 2006 #

  4. Hello, Ilva–Glad you enjoyed the book review–look for more of those here and on the Well Fed Network–Foodbound–a blog dedicated to cookbooks, food literature and publishing is due to come out in the next few weeks. Most of my book reviews will be showing up there, but I will continue to do The Chinese Cookbook project here, along with other reviews of things that I think my readers will particularly like.

    Rose–I saw that! I scooped the Times! I am still giggling about that! Yes, today, the Paper Palate will cover umami–even with the Internet issues–I will prevail! (I am writing on the laptop in my livingroom, perched on the couch with wristbraces on…not the most comfortable, but it works.)

    Kirk–I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who noticed that about the recipes. They all seemed rather ordinary. Now, the one that I did night before last, was quite tasty–but I did mess with it, so who knows?

    Comment by Barbara — January 19, 2006 #

  5. Hello, I am co-author (along with Anna Kasabian, my wife) of The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami. I was delighted to see that some of you folks have seen the book, and that you seem to genuinely appreciate what we are trying do with it. Of course, great recipes are requisite of any cookbook, and as much as we tried, we’re disappointed you didn’t find them overall as yummy in print as we intended. A secondary goal of the book is to educate by illustrating how umami is used to actually cook, not emphasizing Asian, which we thought might be limiting and somewhat misleading (there’s umami in all cuisines, as you know). So we chose to use a broad variety of types of foods in many different styles, with some balance among characteristic Asian and characteristic Western umami ingredients. If it’s not hanging together for you, then I appreciate knowing that. This is our first cookbook and we’re trying to get as much right as we can. Thank you again for your comments, and thanks again for looking at the book and taking the time post your thoughts. If you have questions about umami that I might help with, please ask away. Umami is a fascinating subject (and a very delicious taste!) and this book is certainly not the last word to be written about it. Sincerely, David Kasabian

    Comment by David Kasabian — January 20, 2006 #

  6. Welcome, David and thank you very much for posting your thoughts here.

    It wasn’t that I didn’t think that your recipes were yummy–it was that I didn’t think that they were all that imaginative–and that had nothing to do with you, but with the chefs who were involved with the process. I guess that because they came from chefs–I expected more out of the recipes–I wanted to see them develop processes and techniques to really punch up the umami available in the ingredients.

    If you check out the recipe I did from the book–which I renamed, because I changed the process considerably, and added ingredients–you see that I praise it vociferously–Bradley Ogden’s use of the ingredients was superb.

    I agree–there is more to be written about umami–and more work to be done. In the West, we are just learning about it, so we really have a lot of work to do together to really understand it.

    I really liked how your book pointed out all of the most recent research (though I think you could have explained the difference between plain umami and “synergizing” umami a little more clearly–but from what I can tell it is a fuzzy area that may just be darned hard to explain), and how you stated over and over again that umami is not just the flavor of glutamate.

    As for the Asian ingredients–what I was really looking for was some chefs to use Asian ingredients in a non-traditional way–you mention the fact that lots of chefs sneak fish sauce into dishes that never saw Thailand (and I agree–that is my experience as well–I have seen chefs do it, I have done it myself), but I was hoping to see some creative twists in that vein.

    Or recipes that combined both Eastern and Western umami ingredients from various cuisines in bold abandon.

    That said–I enjoyed the book and don’t regret picking it up in the slightest. I had fun reading it, and I look forward to learning more about umami, and learning how to use it effectively in my own cookery.

    Thank you for stopping by and thank you very much for commenting on my blog–it means a lot.

    (So–what will your next cookbook be about?)

    Comment by Barbara — January 20, 2006 #

  7. These are all good points which we will bear in mind as we plan the next umami book!! We are learning more every day about umami, taste in general, and how the science of food influences the art of eating.

    Let me take another shot at explaining umami synergy. Unfortunately, it is not a straightforward concept, probably because there is so little to compare it to.

    Perhaps a good place to start is with another, more familiar case of taste synergy, specifically that of the artichoke and its famous phytochemical, cynarin. If you have ever tried pairing wines with artichokes and found your wine overly sweet, no matter how dry you thought it was, it is the synergizing effect of cynarin which, although not very sweet itself, makes everything else taste sweeter. The wine may taste fine by itself, but once you take a bite of artichoke, the wine tastes too sweet. Try it if you if you haven’t yet, it’s a facinating demo of taste science at work.

    A similar effect is achieved with the umami taste. In this case, basic umami comes from amino acids, and synergizing, or amplifying umami comes from a class of food-borne substances called nucleotides. A sauce made from freshly picked, vine-ripened tomatoes is packed with basic (or amino acid-based) umami and probably tastes pretty good by itself. But if you cook in a few mushrooms which are loaded with synergizing (or nucleotide-based) umami, the umami effect is mutilplied many times. You can try this too and it is quite dramatic. If you know which foods have which kinds of umami, you can vary combinations for different umami effects.

    I hope that helps. If not, let me know and keep trying. It’s important to getting the most from umami in your meals. Thanks again for all your feedback and support.

    Comment by David Kasabian — January 23, 2006 #

  8. Yes, David–I got it this time! For whatever reason, this was a clearer explanation than in your book. (I think that the artichoke example is what tipped it over the edge.)

    Of course, as more is learned about the chemistry of umami, then there is more information for clever cooks to work with in creating better flavors in their dishes.

    (Maybe that explains why I felt the need to add dried porcini mushrooms to the Ogden’s recipe for pork shoulder, white beans and kale, too. But, I have to say–I think that they, along with the sherry/shao hsing wine that I used tipped the gravy over into the realm of “ohmigodcanIhavemoreofthat?”

    My daughter is still talking about that dinner.

    Comment by Barbara — January 23, 2006 #

  9. I will have to try that. I like to keep a bottle of (very umami) shao hsing around myself. One of the more wonderful aspects of umami is how you can alter the umami experience by varying umami ingredients. Sounds like you hit on something special!

    Comment by David Kasabian — February 2, 2006 #

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