Umami Gets a Lot of Publicity

May 1, 2006
The fifth basic taste sensation has been getting a lot of publicity lately.

I've had a theory for some time, but haven't been able to prove it. It seems to me that people have a preference for light tastes (white wine, chicken, milk chocolate, 7-Up, cappuccino) or dark tastes (red wine, beef, dark chocolate, Coca-Cola, espresso). I tend to the dark tastes side. But after seeing a presentation on umami at the recent Research Chefs Assn. convention in Houston by David Kasabian, who wrote "The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami," I've had to rethink my theory. I may just be a umami kind of girl.

"Americans have used it for centuries, although the sensation of umami is not as obvious to Westerners because we eat more meat and dairy than other cultures," says Kasabian. "Diets with a lot of fat and aggressive flavors [i.e., Western diets] make it difficult to consciously isolate umami taste. Scientists have debated it for decades, and now in-the-know American chefs are cooking with it like crazy. The fifth basic taste [the others are sweet, sour, salty and bitter], umami is an ingredient-activated taste sensation that contributes to the enjoyment of food. In fact, it's the key that unlocks the secret to better-tasting, more satisfying foods, for restaurants and food manufacturers alike."

Umami has been recognized in Asia for decades. Stock made from konbu (kelp) is widely used in Japanese cuisine. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University was determined to discover the active ingredients in konbu that contributes to its "deliciousness." In 1908, he succeeded in extracting glutamate, the main active ingredient, and coined the term umami, which loosely translates to "perfect," to describe its taste. In 2001, the umami taste bud was finally identified on the tongue of a laboratory rat, changing our perception of the importance of umami taste in the human diet. Umami's status as the fifth sense was finally recognized internationally.

Umami is subtler than other tastes, according to Kasabian. Foods taste umami when they contain free amino acids, which are protein building blocks such as peptides, simple amino acid chains and nucleotides related to RNA and DNA. "Often described as savory, rich, meaty, mouth-filling or brothy, it's the major reason people like the taste of vine-ripened tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, oysters, braised meats, Asian fish sauce, ketchup and MSG, among other umami-loaded foods and seasonings."

Kasabian also points out umami can make other foods taste dramatically better, and create satiety faster. "What it does for food is heighten the impact of flavors and other ingredients - both salty and sweet - softens sour, masks bitter, extends finish, improves palatability, contributes to mouthfeel, triggers salivations, creates the sense of wellbeing and may even be an aphrodisiac," he says.

What gives food umami? "Natural endowment in foods such as oysters, sea vegetables and mushrooms; maturity at harvest, including vine-ripened tomatoes; and more exercised muscle, such as tuna versus cod," says Kasabian. "Aging in foods, such as dry-aged beef, cured hams and sausage, also contributes to umami, as does fermenting in cheese, wine, pickles and artisan bread, and cooking styles like braising and searing."

Sources of umami taste include dried shiitake mushrooms, Portobello mushrooms, truffles and yeast, condiments including Asian fish sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, Caesar dressing and balsamic vinegar. Another is ketchup, which balances all five tastes perfectly and is the reason most Americans like it, according to Kasabian. Wine, beer, aged brown distilled beverages and saki are also good sources.

"Taste is a biological imperative," explains Kasabian. "People crave attractive tastes - sweet, salty and umami - and least enjoy sour and bitter. Balancing tastes, aromas, and textures is the key to success in menu and product formulation."

So, do I give up on my light foods versus dark foods preference theory? Please let me know what you think.

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