Just One Instrument in the Orchestra

Tagging in at what may be the tail end of the umami craze—if indeed a basic form of sensory input can be considered a “craze,” as opposed to, say, an unalterable fact of life—The Art of Eating presents “A Taste by Any Other Name.”

An elegantly written exploration of the so-called fifth taste (beyond the more familiar palette of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter), the article delves into the chemistry of amino acids, the culinary history of Japan and ancient Rome, and the much-maligned mysteries of MSG.

It also hooks into the wave of grassroots interest in the taste (as expressed by a number of bloggers) while doing an admirable job of advocating restraint to those who would cook for sheer unrestrained umami impact:

The interplay of taste, aroma, texture, and visual appeal is irreducible. Umami is just one instrument in the orchestra; it sounds lousy in solos but improves the rest of the orchestra. Understanding how an oboe enriches a symphony is important knowledge for any composer, but it would be absurd to choose your music based on minutes of oboe time.


An enjoyable and informative story, to be sure—but it dodges what may be the most important fifth-taste mystery of them all: why umami causes dogs to eat absolutely terrible things.

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