December 8, 2013
Umami: The Japanese Taste We All Love
It is now generally accepted that humans experience five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. The first four we have all known about for hundreds of years, but the fifth, umami, is given to us by Japan, in terms of both the word and the theory.
My Japanese girlfriend claims that only Japanese people can taste umami. Disinclined though I am to argue with her, especially on anything Japanese, this seems unlikely. The naming and defining of umami certainly happened in Japan, but it only made us aware of what all of us already experienced.
The simplest definition of umami is ‘savory,’or even just ‘delicious.’ It is the wholesome, heart-warming and fully-rounded loveliness of cooked meat – especially beef, gravies and meat sauces, cheese, cooked mushrooms and many more foods that make you wanted to stick your whole face into the bowl. According to Massimo Bottura from the extremely highly rated Osteria Francescana restaurant in Modena, Italy, parmesan is the most umami taste in Western cookery.
It is strange that we in the West have never named and defined the umami taste before. It is perhaps the most prolific and prevalent taste we have. But maybe that’s why we didn’t name it. We named the more specific tastes of sour, bitter, sweet and salty, and wrote off umami as simply ‘everything else.’
Escoffier, the legendary French chef and food theorist, who worked at the turn of the twentieth century and who gave French cooking the respect it has today, knew the importance of umami (even though he didn’t have a name for it) and talked about a ‘fifth taste.’ As it happens, this was around the same time that, according to the Guardian, the term umami “was coined… by a chemist at Tokyo University called Kikunae Ikeda.”
In Europe, everyone ignored Escoffier. Well, on his fifth taste theory anyway. In Japan, though, the idea caught on. It would be almost a hundred years until we started referring directly to the fifth taste in the West, and we would do so using the Japanese word.
Umami is also sometimes referred to as the ‘MSG taste.’ MSG is the much-maligned creation which is used as a flavor enhancer, but which has been the subject of wide-ranging restrictions in much of the world because of its unhealthy properties. MSG is basically a concentration of the umami taste (it is the concentration that is unhealthy, not the umami). The idea of such a concentration came from Kikunae Ikeda.
The Guardian says that “Professor Barry Smith of London University’s Centre for the Study of the Senses queries why ‘we need neuroscience and the Japanese’ to alert us to it.” (“It” being umami.) He thinks that the concept of umami is too broad, and that is why we haven’t defined it before. But academics love to disagree with popular theories don’t they; otherwise they’d be out of a job.
Image Credit: sunabesyou / Shutterstock