Do you want to know what makes your tongue go into waves of ecstasy, sending happiness to the pleasure center of your brain? Recently, scientists have confirmed the fifth taste of umami. It’s the key to what makes your tongue tingle with joy.
The easiest way of understanding umami is to start with the sensations of the palate, as Suzanne L. Wagner says, “When we eat, three of the five senses join together to tell us whether we like what we are ingesting: taste and smell, of course, but also touch. The tongue’s surface is covered with touch” and taste receptors while the nose has scent receptors so the taste, the smell, “the texture and temperature of food play an important role in the experience of eating”. So the major characteristics of cuisines or the palette of the palate are taste, smell, texture and temperature of food (as mediated by chemical and mechanical receptors). And as is commonly known the eye contains three color receptors (red, green and blue) which leads to a spectrum of colors. Similarly the taste buds have different receptors for various food types which lead to a spectrum of tastes, we all know the taste pairs salty/sweet and sour/bitter but what most people don’t know is that there are receptors for ‘umami’ or glutamate the ‘fifth taste’. Yup, glutamate, as in monosodium glutamate (MSG), the wide-spread food additive (E621 a sodium salt of the non-essential amino acid glutamic acid) nowadays mostly made from bacterial fermentation.
The Chinese have known for over 2600 years that there are five taste sensations (this view is generally attributed to the 6th century BC Prime Minister Yi Yin to the King Tang) and in 1912 Dr. Kikunae Ikeda said, “Those who pay careful attention to their taste buds will discover in the complex flavor of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter?…”
Glutamate which causes the taste umami is used in many processed foods because when the olfactory (smell and taste) senses detect this chemical they interpret the messages as a flavor enhancer, hence the Japanese word umami for yummy, keen, or nice. Sounds kind of elusive but basically the chemical glutmate causes the taste umami in our taste spectrum and more importantly these receptors also enhance flavor. It makes our food taste better and it heightens taste. Yes, glutamate which sparks the taste of umami is the thing that makes you go hmmmm…
Many people have health concerns about eating MSG but rigorous studies have shown that it is safe for nearly all people when “eaten at customary levels” especially so when it is found in natural foods.
Glutamate is found in all (so cannot be avoided) foods to varying degrees excellent sources are all meats; poultry; fish such as dried bonito flakes, mackerel, sea bream, tuna, cod, oysters, squid, shell fish; eggs; dairy products such as parmesan cheese or aged cheeses. Plant sources rich in umami are protein-rich plants, tomatoes, certain mushrooms, asparagus, truffles, soy beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, Chinese cabbage, carrots, green tea, kombu and most seaweeds and the yeast spreads Marmite and Vegemite. Sauces such as Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and fish sauce. Notice how many of these are considered the ultimate taste sensation in several cuisines.
So adding umami rich foods to recipes, makes them more palatable. Certainly as foodies we are always seeking something to make our food even better. Below is an example of a umami rich recipe:
From “The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami” by David Kasabian and Anna Kasabian
Frittata is an Italian-style open-faced omelet, cooked slowly on the stove top then finished under the broiler. Although it is a simple, rustic dish, it takes some time and effort. But it pays off with rich, deep flavors and satisfying textures. The asparagus, eggs, cheese, tomatoes and olives are all rich in umami. And of course you can serve them with the rich umami sauces such as oyster, soy, mushroom to enhance that hmmmm taste.
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 spears pencil-thin asparagus
1 medium red onion, 1/4 inch slices
1 small shallot, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup Parmigano-Reggiano cheese, coarsely grated
1 small ripe red Roma tomato, diced
1 tablespoon green olives, sliced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Wash and trim the asparagus. Cut into 2 inch lengths. Cook in boiling, salted water until al dente, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and set aside uncovered.
Heat the olive oil on medium in an 8 inch nonstick fry pan with a heat-resistant handle. Add the onions, shallots and salt and toss to coat. Caramelize them by cooking them very slowly (they should barely sizzle), stirring occasionally, until deep golden brown, about 20 minutes. Drain the onions and shallots thoroughly, leaving as much oil in the pan as you can. Set aside to cool.
Thoroughly mix the cheese, tomato, olives, pepper and cooled onion and shallots into the beaten eggs. Reheat the oil in the pan on medium. When a drop of water tossed into the pan sizzles loudly, add the egg mixture, stirring briefly to distribute the fillings. Turn burner to low and let the mixture cook slowly. You should see just a few lazy bubbles popping up around the edges. Cook undisturbed until the edges are cooked but the middle is still very liquid, about 8 minutes.
Put the pan under a medium broiler until the top of the frittata is golden brown, the edges are puffed up and the center is just set (the center will jiggle slightly but pops right back after you poke it), about 2 minutes. Don’t overcook it! Loosen with a non-scratch spatula, if needed. Move to a warmed platter and serve right away.
The drawing of tastebuds from Grays Anatomy