Bitter, Sweet, Salty, Sour… and Umami

talks about the common denominator between onions, beets, and breast milk

What if I told you that you have been tasting a flavour that you might not know exists? Umami is the fifth taste and is responsible for the popularity of a myriad of foods with notable examples including all-time favourites such as ketchup, parmesan cheese, and beef. Umami derives from the Japanese words ‘umai’ and ‘wa’ and literally translates to deliciousness, but it is much more than that.

Bitter, sweet, salty and sour have been known to constitute the basic tastes for the past two and a half thousand years but umami was only discovered around a century ago by the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda. Kikunae Ikeda tasted kombu dashi and observed the fact that its flavour did not fit within the four basic tastes. Scientific study and further research of this fact led to the discovery of umami and the understanding of its function in humans. Umami serves the purpose of alerting the body to the consumption of protein and the facilitation of its digestion. Umami is felt throughout the tongue through receptors that recognise glutamate, which is present in certain vegetables and cheeses, in-osinate, which is present in most meats and guanylate, which is present mostly in dried mushrooms.

The taste of umami is defined by two properties:  an increase in salivation and flavour lengthening. The increased salivation elevates the taste of food while the flavour lengthening has a notable impact on the aftertaste. In basic terms, it makes food tastier while it ensures that the flavour in your mouth remains there for a prolonged period of time.

The correct manipulation of umami doesn’t only have an effect on taste but on our health as well. The presence of umami allows us to enhance the flavour of our food and as such makes it possible to reduce unnecessary additives and ingredients in recipes. There-fore you can easily reduce your caloric intake, making dieting much easier, simpler and tastier.

So, how does one use umami to make basic dishes into palatable heaven? Try to use ingredients that contain glutamate and if possible ingredients that contain either one of the other two categories. The combination of the different amino acids leads to a much greater effect on taste than just using one of them. An example of this technique is spaghetti bolognese with dried porcini mushrooms as it combines both glutamate (tomato) and guanylate (porcini). Add parmigiano reggiano and soy sauce and you’ve got yourself a very flavourful and easy to make dish.

Or, as a shortcut, you can just add Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) to your creations exactly as you would add salt. MSG is a food additive which is very easily acquirable both in stores and online. Some people might have concerns with the consumption of MSG as the Western culture has been promoting the idea that MSG is harmful and causes head-aches and many more health problems. However, like the fear of gluten, the fear of MSG is unfounded as numerous scientific studies with double blind tests did not find any harmful effects to-wards humans unless there was an extremely high concentration. If you still aren’t sure what umami is here are two methods you can use to further understand it:

Cherry tomato method:

Take the stem off the tomato and then chew the tomato slowly and approximately 30 times. Once you start chewing the tomato you will start tasting a combination of sourness and sweetness that fades away quickly. After some minutes have passed you will still be feeling a taste in your mouth. That is umami.

Vegetable stock method:

This method is a bit more complex but it shows you the power of umami through direct comparison. You will need 800ml of vegetable bouillon which can either be made from a stock or by boiling the following ingredients: 1l water, 40g (1.4 oz) broccoli, 40g celery, 40g mush-rooms, 15g (0.5 oz) onion, 15g carrot and 5g (0.2 oz) parsley. If you use the ingredients and not the cube make sure to only use the stem from the broccoli, celery and parsley as the rest adds a strong and bitter taste to the bouillon. Don’t forget to add a pinch of salt regardless of the method you use. Then,  take two cups and fill both with vegetable stock. Make sure you can clearly distinguish the two cups from one another. Then, add MSG to one cup and no MSG to the other one. Sip the bouillon without the MSG first and then taste the one with the MSG. What you will notice is that the second has a much more balanced and firm taste.

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