Maybe if we hadn’t identified salt a long time ago, we would have a hard time defining what we mean by salty. But the substance that creates the flavor “umami” was isolated only 98 years ago, by Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda.
“Umami has always been there; we have always enjoyed it, even craved it, ever since humankind started to eat. Yet we, as Westerners, anyway, just didn’t know what it was—let alone what to call it—until recently,” write Anna and David Kasabian in their new book, The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami (Universal), an introduction to umami with recipes by Daniel Boulud, Gary Danko, Nobu Matsuhisa, and others.
The combination of umami’s late entry into our consciousness and its Japanese name (it means something like “savoriness”) has made umami seem much more esoteric than it is. Fact is, it’s one of the basic flavors perceived by the human tongue, along with sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. It comes from the amino acid glutamate, which is related, but not identical to, the unpopular flavor enhancer MSG. Scientists from the University of Miami identified the tongue’s specific umami receptor in 2000.
Parmesan cheese and aged beef are heavy in umami. It’s cultivated when proteins break down through aging or cooking. Strictly speaking, umami is not a flavor but a taste, the human reaction when a “tastant”—in this case, a glutamate—lands on the right taste buds. At the same time, odorants, or aromas, are detected by olfactory nerves. And “taste plus aroma equals what we call flavor,” write the Kasabians. How do you know when it’s not umami enough? “When you find yourself reaching for the salt shaker,” says Anna. Or “when your appetite fatigues quickly,” as with, for example, some light, unsauced fish.
David reveals the ultimate “cheap chef trick”: Asian fish sauce, a flavor of pure umami. “It’s something I learned in culinary school,” he says. “Go digging around in pantries of chefs who don’t cook Asian, and you’ll find it. They’ll sneak it in.”
The message, he says, “is not that umami is the be all, end all,” he says, “but it’s an important element. All these centuries we’ve been trying to balance sweet, sour, salty, bitter. What we’re saying is, those four tastes are important, but here’s a fifth. Be aware of it, and you can make magic.”