Umami is enigmatic. Foodies have been known to talk about “the fifth taste” the way teenage boys discuss female anatomy: knowingly, but without really understanding how it works.

Fortunately, Columbia University Press has published a practical field guide entitled Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste, co-authored by biophysicist Ole G. Mouritsen and chef Klavs Styrbaek. For the book, the Danish duo traveled to Japan to study the science behind that savory oomph, created by a naturally occurring substance called glutamate.


Klavs Styrbæk and Ole G. Mouritsen (Photo: Jonas Drotner Mouritsen)

They discovered that the umami flavor in a dish increases exponentially when glutamate interacts with certain other compounds, so they came up with 39 original recipes that maximize that tongue-coating, mouth-watering flavor.

The recipes, accompanied by beautiful photography, make for inspirational reading, although monkfish liver au gratin might be slightly beyond most home cooks’ repertoires. But the handy reference pages—like a list of umami-rich foods and tip sheets on easy ways to add umami to your regular dishes—are both useful and user-friendly.


A featured recipe from the book.

According to a review in the Japan Times, the tome is not really a cook book—although it will help you deploy umami like a pro even if you can’t totally grasp the science behind it. Rather, it’s an exploration of a buzzy culinary topic with enough technical data and cultural history to satisfy food nerds and gastro-snobs. In other words, buy it for your mustachioed friend who experiments with infusing small-batch bourbon with maple glazed bacon.

[via Japan Times]