Conventional wisdom used to tell us that there were only four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Now, in the last decade, umami has been established as the "fifth" basic taste, and is gaining in popularity and influence. The name umami was coined in Japan a century ago, when the taste (found in Eastern staples like seaweed) was first identified as a unique. Read more about it in this excerpt from "The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami" by David Kasabian and Anna Kasabian.
Presenting a Taste You Already Know Well: Umami
In just the past few years, the conscious use of umami in cooking has become a powerful new culinary force in America. Thousands of chefs and serious cooks have embraced it as an easy, healthy and dramatic way to make food taste better by emphasizing umami’s rich, meaty, savory qualities.
Along the way, some people have labeled umami a new taste, but it is clearly not new. No more than sweet, sour, salty and bitter – the other four basic tastes – are new. Umami has always been there, we have always enjoyed it, we have even craved it, ever since humankind started to eat. Yet we, as Westerners anyway, just didn’t know what it was – let alone what to call it – until recently.
Turns out that umami taste is one reason we adore tomatoes, corn, cheese, mushrooms, oysters, aged beef and many other foods spanning cuisines of every culture on earth. These are all foods rich in umami taste. But, as much as umami might take credit for the enjoyment of a particular food, it is just one of many reasons we take pleasure in it. The others include the balance among the other four tastes, the food’s aroma, mouth feel and appearance, and even the sound it makes when you eat it. We’ll investigate these in more detail later, but first some important definitions.
Taste is Not Flavor
Some people use the terms taste and flavor interchangeably, as in “that vanilla ice cream tastes good,” and “I like the salty flavor of clams.” That’s fine because that’s the way normal people speak, yet taste and flavor have simple scientific distinctions that every cook can benefit greatly from understanding.
Tastes are sensations caused by compounds called tastants as they enter your mouth, dissolve in saliva, and encounter chemical-sensing sites called taste buds buried deep inside fungiform papillae on our tongues and elsewhere in the mouth.
When tastants like sucrose (table sugar) and fructose (fruit sugars) hit the right taste buds, our brains register the sensation called sweet. With sodium chloride (table salt) hitting the right taste buds, we get the salty sensation. Acids are tastants in wine, vinegar and lemon juice which we perceive as sour. And from alkaloids found in poisons like strychnine, household cleaners like ammonia, and from a few foods such as chocolate, coffee, tonic water, citrus rind, endive and freshly ground black pepper, we taste bitter.
The other important chemical sense is aroma, which is what we smell of food. We acquire aroma from volatized (i.e., vaporized) chemicals in our food called odorants. Odorants waft through our nostrils before food enters our mouths. They also rise through the opening behind the soft palate on the roof of the mouth as food is chewed or otherwise passes through. This is also where the enzymes in saliva dissolve and release newly developed odorants. Both passages lead to the olfactory nerves at the top of the nasal cavity, mere millimeters from the olfactory bulb on the brain where aroma signals are processed.
All taste buds taken together sense just five basic tastes (as far as we know). Olfactory nerves detect thousands of distinct aromas. The important principle is that taste plus aroma equals what we call flavor. In other words, taste happens in the mouth, aroma happens in the nasal cavity, and flavor happens when the two sensations meet in the brain. See the Jelly Bean Test below.
Most sensory experts regard a third sensation as a flavor component, i.e., irritation of the trigeminal nerve endings throughout the oral and nasal cavities. Stimulation of this nerve accounts for the pungent sensation when we eat things like chilies, horseradish and raw garlic; the cool we get from alcohol and the menthol in mints, mouthwash and some cigarettes; and the numbness inflicted by cloves, not to mention the dentist’s needle. It is also the direct physical stimulation of the oral cavity from food temperatures and textures, and includes that titillating tingle of champagne bubbles on the tongue and roof of the mouth. Trigeminal stimulation is often painful, but many people like it nonetheless.
“Tastes Good, and It’s Good For You!”
It’s a trite claim of bad advertising, but there’s more than a tasty morsel of truth to it. Nearly all human sensations, including hunger, thirst, pleasure, pain, etc., are designed to help us survive and even thrive as individuals and a species.
In the case of taste, it all sounds rather prehistoric considering our supposedly advanced state of civilization, but picture if you will a primitive ancestor of ours, unacquainted with principles of nutrition, foraging about for something to quell this hungry sensation about which he is equally ignorant. Fortunately, a taste mechanism has evolved in his mouth, nose and brain to make sure he eats the good stuff and avoids the bad, most of the time anyway.
His highly-desired taste for sweet ensures he eats, among other things, foods rich in readily-available carbohydrates, the fundamental fuel for his body. There’s not that much really sweet tasting stuff for him to eat, so he probably walks around with an unsated sweet tooth, forever ready to eat his fill and beyond when he encounters that exhilarating taste. It is one he encounters strongly in ripe fruit, and to a lesser degree, in vegetables and meat.
His taste for salt might not be all that pleasing by itself. But salt enhances the taste of other foods like vegetables and nuts. So the salt he gets from fish, sea vegetables, animal blood and salt deposits inspire him to eat a varied diet, all the while sneaking much needed minerals into his system. Once salt’s importance was recognized by more advanced civilizations, it would go on to play a chief protagonist in cultures, economies, global exploration, religion, politics and superstitions, all testaments to the magnitude of salt’s human nutritional significance.
To our primal ancestor, bitter is distinctly unpleasant. Because most edibles in nature that would kill him taste bitter, like plant and animal poisons, this aversion helps him live to eat another day.
His ability to taste sour, which he also finds unpleasant, is a bit of a mystery. The simplest explanation for its existence may be that both unripe and decaying foodstuffs taste sour, signaling that it’s not poison, but rather that it’s the wrong time to be eating this particular substance. Theories abound.
For better or worse, we inherited this same taste mechanism, clearly designed for a less sophisticated and less prosperous generation of our species. We now enjoy a surplus of what used be scarce (sugar and salt), and have acquired a taste for what used to repel (bitter and sour). Sadly, too many of us are mindless slaves to our obsolete gustatory urges and constantly fill up on everything. The result is too much obesity, diabetes, hypertension, alcoholism, cardio-vascular disease, cancer and countless taste-manipulating food additives the unwary ingest every day.
But we can also thank our primitive taste faculty for the ability to make and eat some extraordinary food, if we are smart enough to transcend our impulses. And if we know what we’re doing in the kitchen.
So What Tastes Umami?
Umami stands accused of being subtle and hard to describe. Granted, it is subtle, at least to many Westerners, but largely because we’re not conscious of it the way we are conscious of, say, sweet and salty when we eat them. The Western diet is partly to blame since it tends toward fattier, more highly-flavored foods that compete with umami and diminish the impression it makes. Asians, particularly Japanese eating a more traditional diet, recognize the umami in an oyster as instinctively as Westerners recognize the salt. Nonetheless, umami works it magic with less overt effect.
Umami, however, is not hard to describe – no harder, really, than describing sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Among the most apt descriptors are savory, mouth-filling, brothy, meaty, satisfying and rich. Like salt, it isn’t all that pleasant by itself, but it makes other foods taste much better, sometimes turning the nearly unpalatable into a rewarding feast. Umami extends the finish of savory foods, making them linger on the palate longer. It also alters our perception of other tastes, making salt saltier, sweet sweeter, and bitter and sour less biting. We have included some taste tests to help you zero in on the umami taste so you’ll know it when you taste it.
We get umami taste from many food-borne substances. A misconception that persist to this day holds that the singular source of umami is glutamic acid or glutamate, an amino acid found in varying concentrations in just about everything we eat, both animal and vegetable. Glutamate is the most abundant amino acid in nature. It is also the star ingredient in monosodium glutamate or MSG. But don’t draw conclusions about that fact just yet. A more detailed discussion follows.
Like many other amino acids, glutamate has numerous roles in the body. In fact, glutamate isn’t just the most abundant amino acid, it is also the busiest, performing more human-bodily functions than any other single amino acid. One job is as a neural transmitter, aiding the flow of information around in our brains. Another is as a building block of proteins, which are chains of amino acids, sometimes hundreds of molecules long. Depending on which amino acids they are made of and how they are arranged, different proteins are suited to different functions in the body. Some become muscle tissue, others go on to become enzymes, still others form brain cells, and so forth. Human life requires upward of 100,000 different proteins, each with unique compositions and characteristics.
Glutamate is called a non-essential amino acid because our bodies can fabricate all the glutamate we need, rendering it non-essential in our diets (in spite of the fact that we eat plenty of it anyway). Of the twenty amino acids used in our bodies for constructing proteins, there are nine we can’t manufacture ourselves. These are called essential amino acids because it is essential to include them in our diets or we risk protein deficiency. Inattentive vegans are at risk for this because some essential amino acids, notably lysine and tryptophan, are somewhat rare in the vegetable world. But science is just learning what umami-enlightened cooks have known all along, which is that glutamate isn’t the only umami-tasting substance that we eat. Far from it.
Maxed-out meatloafFrom "The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami"
Serves 6 to 8 for dinner
With apologies to grandmothers everywhere, we humbly suggest that this is going to become your favorite meatloaf ever. Not because it is radically different, because it is not. But rather because it’s more of what you love meatloaf for — umami. If by some odd chance you don’t eat it all for dinner, you’ll want to fry up a slice to go with your eggs and toast for breakfast, and put a slab between two slices of crusty bread for lunch. The mushrooms, eggs, beef, tomato, corn, soy sauce, truffle oil and bacon are all rich in umami.
Preheat oven to 450° F.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and sauté until translucent. Add the garlic and mushrooms and sauté until mixture is caramelized, about 6 minutes more. Set aside to cool thoroughly.
Core and cut the red bell pepper into quarters. Coat the pepper pieces with the remaining olive oil and grill on a stovetop grill or under the broiler until barely cooked through.
Beat two eggs in a large bowl. Add ground beef, cooked vegetables, tomato, corn, bread crumbs, soy sauce, truffle oil, salt and pepper. Gently mix by hand until just incorporated. Do not overwork the ground beef. The fat will smear and the meatloaf will be dry and tough.
Brush or spray a medium-size sheet pan with oil. Put the meatloaf mixture onto the pan and shape into a loaf twice as wide as it is tall. Drape bacon diagonally across the entire loaf, overlapping, to completely cover meat. Secure the ends with several toothpicks.
Place in the middle of the preheated oven and immediately reduce the heat to 375° F. Bake for 1 hour or until internal temperature reaches 155° F. Rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.