Have you ever wondered what makes a good hamburger so satisfyingly addictive? Its popularity as a lowly greasy spoon diner staple often causes people to overlook and even dismiss the complexity of its flavours. The combination of ingredients and differing textures in the hamburger are not only delicious, they also leave a flavor that lingers in the mouth well after each bite. A mouthful of pho or beef stroganoff gives off a similar, lingering and pleasant aftertaste that evolves on the pallet in interesting ways. This extra oomph in the flavor is brought to you courtesy of umami. Umami is the culinary world’s favorite buzzword and it has become so ubiquitous that it is now an essential part of a foodie’s lexicon. Vloggers speak of umami bombs in between mouthfuls of food and fits of face-making that range in intensity from a stalled sneeze to a demonic possession. Umami is a subtle yet powerful taste. Similar to a turbocharger, it doesn’t do much on its own but when properly paired, it can skyrocket the output of an engine. Umami has deeply embedded itself in the modern culinary vernacular; however, the acceptance of its existence has been a long and interesting journey.
IT IS A TASTE:
Umami is one of the five tastes that we can sense on our tongues; however, properly recounting its subtle, amorphous characteristics is certainly a challenge. It is often described as being savory, tongue coating, and mouth filling, with a lingering aftertaste that is slightly earthy, slightly musty and mouth-watering. As is evident, the descriptions are vague and somewhat ambiguous, giving it an elusive, almost incomprehensible stigma. We are taught in school about the four tastes being comprised of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltines. Umami is nowhere near as apparent as the other tastes; therefore, isolating a specific set of psychophysical reactions has been difficult. Due to this very nature, many are confounded by the existence of umami, often associating its sensory impression to other aspects of taste and flavor. By itself, umami is very mild and not particularly pleasant; however it is its ability to synergize with other tastes and flavours that make it so fascinating.
FLAVOUR ≠ TASTE:
Speaking of flavour, let’s establish that it is distinct from taste and the two terms cannot be used interchangeably. Flavour is a multi-sensorial impression that results from a combination of smell, taste, touch, sight and sometimes hearing. The main component of flavor is its smell, more specifically, the perception of smell that occurs within the mouth, otherwise known as retro nasal olfaction. Aromas are released with every bite, which travel towards the back of the mouth where the olfactory system picks up the aroma. Taste is another component of flavor and it is the sensory impression that occurs when a substance in the mouth reacts chemically with taste receptors on our taste buds, which are found mostly on the tongue. Whereas taste is limited to our ability to detect saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sourness and umami, smell has boundless characteristics. However, taste plays the important role as the base or foundation of flavour. Furthermore, our sense of touch allows us to feel the texture of food, determining its crunchiness, chewiness or gelatinousness and detect temperature and tenderness. Additionally, appearance, color, presentation and even the sound of food such as the sizzle of caramelizing sugar or the crunch of a palmier can play a role in how we perceive our food. Flavour is therefore the overall sensorial experience of our food. The brain (orbitofrontal cortex to be specific) collects information from our senses where it determines the deliciousness of what we eat.
DISCOVERY OF 5TH TASTE:
Although umami has only recently been acknowledged as a taste, it was first discovered and classified as a taste just over a century ago. One night in 1907, Kikunea Ikeda, a chemistry professor at the Tokyo Imperial University, noticed that the broth in his dinner was especially delicious and suspected that there was something distinct from sweet, salty, bitter and sour in his dashi. Dashi is commonly utilized as a cooking stock in Japanese and Asian cuisines and its purpose is to form the basis of a dish, soup or sauce. It is traditionally made by heating kombu (dried kelp) and katsubuoshi (fermented skipjack tuna) flakes in water to a near boil for about half an hour. Professor Ikeda began to analyze the stock and broke it down into its components. While investigating the chemical composition of kombu, Ikeda noticed some brown crystals that formed after evaporating the kelp broth. Those brown crystals were identified as glutamic acid and they were responsible for the distinct savory taste in dashi. As this taste was unique, Ikeda coined the neologism to describe it: umami, a portmanteau of the Japanese words “umai” and “mi” which roughly translates to delicious taste. Ikeda would eventually patent the process of manufacturing what he named “Ajinomoto” or monosodium glutamate (MSG), which has become quite infamous despite scientific studies showing no harmful effects to humans. That is however, a subject for another discussion.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE MOUTH:
In 2000, it was discovered that the human tongue contains receptors (T1R1 and T1R3) that respond to certain glutamates and nucleotides. At the chemical level, umami is the interaction between the taste receptors on our tongues and umami substances such as glutamate, an amino acid and inosinate and guanylate, both of which are nucleotides. Glutamates are abundantly found in most animal proteins and also occur in tomatoes, onions, nori, garlic and green tea amongst other things. Inosinates occur when adenosine triphosphate (ATP, an organic chemical vital to metabolic processes) is broken down. It is abundant in beef, pork, tuna, salmon and other animal proteins. Guanylates are most abundant in mushrooms such as shiitake. Although umami substances are abundant in numerous foods, they are often bound to a complex molecule such as protein, which will not react to our umami taste receptors. The presence of umami requires some form of food processing such as cooking and fermenting. For example, cooking tuna will unbind glutamates from proteins and release inosinates from ATP. Only in their unbound or free forms can umami compounds create the umami taste.
THE GESTAULT OF FLAVOUR:
The famous phrase of gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka “the whole is something else than the sum of its parts” certainly applies to umami, except in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What makes umami so fascinating is the synergy it creates with flavors. It adds a layer of depth and complexity to saltiness and sweetness without increasing the intensity of the taste and it tempers bitterness and sourness, making them more pleasant and palatable. Furthermore, in 1957, Akira Kuninaka, another Japanese chemist discovered that when glutamate is combined with a nucleotide (such as inosinate) the resulting synergy multiplies the umami to a whole new dimension to flavor. In short, when umami is derived from different sources, its effect is compounded, thus deriving the popular umami equation of 1+1=8. Aside from the skewed math, we have yet to chemically understand how glutamates and nucleotides impact the perception of smell, taste and even the tactile sensation of food. One interesting theory suggests that they interact with our taste receptors for a longer period of time than other substances, allowing different aromas and tastes to interact with each other, creating complex synergies that enhance flavor. Or perhaps the fact that glutamate is an important neurotransmitter may be a factor in its flavour enhancing capabilities. What we do know is that with umami, the flavor is greater than the sum of its parts.
PROMETHEUS’ UNINTENDED GIFT:
The existence of glutamates, inosinates and guanylates signify the presence of protein and umami may have played an important role in evolution, as it would have influenced early humans to prefer cooked, protein-rich foods. The ability to cook with fire gave early humans an evolutionary advantage by drastically reducing the risk of infection and lessening the energy required for digestion by breaking down protein and other nutrients into more bio-available constituents.
This in turn allowed humans to spend energy and resources into developing other important characteristics such as growing larger brains. The same brains that would use Prometheus’ gift of fire to flourish and build civilizations, incur the wrath of the gods (Zeus may have wanted to keep umami to himself) and eventually invent Hawaiian style pizza, unfortunately.
SHOW ME THE UMAMI:
The discovery of umami as a taste may be recent, but our ancestors have long been experimenting with ingredients and pairing foods that would create umami. The ancient Romans used a sauce called garum that was loaded with MSG from fermented fish to season their food. The Chinese created soy sauce – which derived its rich umami from fermented soybeans – over 2,000 years ago. Many traditional food pairings contain savory ingredients are optimized for umami such as the meat broth, pork, seaweed and miso in Ramen and anchovies, capers, olives, tomatoes and garlic in Puttanesca sauce. A delectable prime cut of dry aged beef such as a porterhouse steak is a showcase of umami in action. As the beef is dry-aged, its collagen breaks down to increase tenderness. While cooking, the steak undergoes the Maillard reaction (a topic worthy of another article) in which the meat is browned through a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars. Glutamates and inosinates are unbound, allowing them to synergize with each other, resulting in the 1+1=8 blast of umami. Couple that with a generous helping of fat and you have an explosion of savory, umami filled deliciousness. Hamburgers, lasagna, pizza, xiaolongbao, sauerkraut, bulgogi, french onion soup, and kimchi, parmesan cheese and jamon iberico are just a few examples of food that pack a strong umami punch. What they all have in common is that they are all processed – either cooked, fermented or preserved – and they all leave a savory, lingering, mouth-filling, tongue-fuzzying sensation that we so appreciate.
THE INTERNET OF FLAVOUR:
Umami when alone is like Clark Kent: unassuming and weak despite his suspicious ability to fill up his suit. However, when properly paired, it becomes the Superman of the equation. We now have a plethora of information about how to pair umami rich foods to bring out that superhero taste when cooking. Understanding umami allows us to appreciate the depth and complexity of the synergy in different tastes and flavors. It brings forth a new dimension for us to experiment and explore. We can pair our own wines with umami rich foods or examine different methods of cooking such as using earth ovens or sous-vide to make more flavorful dishes. Umami can allow people with dietary restrictions to enjoy a wider range of foods without adding sugar or salt. The possibilities are limitless, just so long as pineapple and pizza are kept far away from each other.