Sautéed mushrooms, aged cheese, anchovies. What do these foods have in common (besides, of course, being great pizza toppings)? They’re all drenched in umami, the mysterious “fifth taste.”

A piece on NPR, “Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter… and Umami,” explores the history of umami and traces it to simultaneous discoveries by two men. The first is French chef Auguste Escoffier, who pioneered a new way of cooking, à la minute, based around rich stocks and sauces. According to NPR science writer Jonah Lehrer, his veal stock “didn’t just taste good … [it] was the best food you ever tasted in your life,” i.e., concentrated essence of umami. Meanwhile, after eating an intriguing bowl of dashi soup, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda took to his lab and discovered the chemical L-glutamate, present in cheese, tomatoes, meat, and seaweed.

The focus on umami is part of a celebration of Lehrer’s new book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, which, through profiles of various artists, seeks to remind us that:

Art … describes the same world that science does; art just does it by a different route. And sometimes, more often than you would suppose, the artists get there first.

Still, while most appreciate the savoriness umami gives food, not everyone can put his finger on just what umami is.

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