We all know that we have five senses: taste, touch, feel, sight, and sound. But scientists and cookbook authors are finally coming to see what the food nation might have known all along, but just couldn’t name: there are five tastes; making the tongue just as sensitive as our bodies (if not more so).
Research began in 1907 by Professor Ikeda on a taste that is difficult to describe. He called it Umami, a word so different than the other tastes the English tongue is accustomed to (salty, sweet, sour, bitter), which might play a part in why it has taken so long to get the message out. This possibly comes as a big surprise to many. After all, how likely are you to be at a dinner where somebody exclaims, “Wow, the umami in this braise is really strong!” or “this dressing has very subtle umami undertones”? And in the Boston Globe, Joe Yonan even projects that there are culinary teachers that dismiss umami with students, telling them not to worry about this “thing” they are hearing about!
But really, there are hundreds of cookbooks out there for our sweet cravings, our salty needs, and even the sour and bitter holds a place in our hearts, but… umami? Do you ever just crave some slow cooked stew? A rich, hearty vegetable, like a vine-ripe tomato or Portobello mushroom? Do you liberally sprinkle Parmigiano-Reggiano onto all your pasta and salads? That is your umami talking. Because when it comes down to it, if somebody asks you to describe the taste of a tomato, it’s not just sweet. There is something else in there. It is umami.
Often described as “savory” or “meaty”, umami is that little named, often used taste receptor that, well, just means good. And with the first (Western) cookbook ever dedicated to incorporating umami into every meal, we might just start hearing more about umami at the dinner table: “Hey mom, the umami in this is amazing!”
Skeptics may say, “Now wait a minute, this 'umami' sounds a little too much like MSG.” But umami is a taste receptor that picks up on amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, otherwise known as glutamates. It is the free form of glutamates that our taste responds to and singles out as tasty food. It’s a taste humans have been craving since they began recording recipes: Ancient Roman cookbooks make reference to “garum”, a substance made by allowing uneaten fish (heads, innards, etc) to ferment. Worcestershire sauce has the same properties, as does Asian fish sauce. So the need for umami is for everyone and always has been. Cured or mature meats (like turkeys or pheasants) contain a lot of umami (more than just beef, pork or chicken—though those satisfy umami too), anchovies, sardines, tuna, oysters, red bell peppers, sweet potatoes, Chinese cabbage, carrots, many beans like soy or parloa, and mature red wines are all high in umami ratings.