5 Legitimately Interesting Facts About Umami

What makes Parmesan so rich in umami? (Photo: Liz Barclay)

What makes Parmesan so rich in umami? (Photo: Liz Barclay)

Of all the insidery lingo that food media has perpetuated, umami easily ranks among the most annoying. The “fifth taste,” as it’s often referred to, is generally used to describe a deeply savory flavor in food, typified by ingredients such as Parmesan and anchovies. To be fair, it can be a useful word, but like other trendy culinary terms—terroir, mixologist, etc.—it’s tough to deploy without sounding like a pretentious wankster, and it’s been beaten into the ground by trigger-happy critics eager to declare every Caesar salad and earthy mushroom dish under the sun an “umami bomb.”

If we’re going to incorporate the Japanese idea of umami into our food vocabulary—just as we have omikase and kaiseki—it’s important to understand where the word comes from, what it really means, and how it fits into the biological mechanisms that control how we taste things. Over on the Guardian‘s Word of Mouth blog, Amy Fleming has a useful post exploring the origins and nuances of umami. Here are five key points that jumped out to us:

  1. The term umami is relatively new: “Umami…was coined in 1908 by a chemist at Tokyo University called Kikunae Ikeda. [He pinpointed] glutamate, an amino acid, as the source of savoury wonder.”
  2. There is a direct link between umami and MSG: “[Ikeda] learned how to produce [glutamate] in industrial quantities and patented the notorious flavour enhancer MSG.”
  3. The general concept of umami is older, of course, and not confined to Japan: “Umami is why the Romans loved liquamen, the fermented anchovy sauce that they sloshed as liberally as we do ketchup today… Escoffier, the legendary 19th-century French chef who invented veal stock, felt sure that a savoury fifth taste was the secret of his success.”
  4. There is an evolutionary explanation for our love of umami: “Just as humans evolved to crave sweetness for sugars and, therefore, calories and energy, and loathe bitter to help avoid toxins, umami is a marker of protein (which is made up of amino acids, which are essential for life).”
  5. Some scientists are thinking about how to use umami to solve nutrition issues. Paul Breslin of Monell University says “one of his key motivations is finding ways through taste research to feed malnourished people.” Meanwhile, Professor Margot Gosney is “looking into increasing the umami content in hospital food, to make it more appealing to older people, without overdoing the salt.”

[via the Guardian]

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