What is umami? According to TIME mag…
It’s the culinary magic found in seaweed, soy sauce and half of the Japanese dishes you’ve eaten at one time or another. You’ll also find umami in tomatoes, potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, oysters, sardines, Parmesan cheese, steak sauce and cured ham. It’s the cause of meaty mouthfeel and the active ingredient in MSG. Derived primarily from glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid, umami is a flavor you can’t get by combining any other flavors. Which means it’s a primary flavor, like the four others you learned about in school: salt, sweet, sour and bitter.
Scientists have discovered that we have taste receptors on our tongues that are dedicated to a fifth kind of flavor, that respond completely differently from the receptors we’ve known about for so long, and it took until the 1980s to figure this out? It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. For that matter, the very existence of umami as a separate flavor wasn’t discovered until 1908, when Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at Tokyo Imperial University, first isolated the unique compounds behind it. This, despite the fact that Japanese housewives had been making dashi broth from seaweed for thousands of years.
Umami has frequently been used as a flavor enhancer, in both Eastern and Western cultures. In China, it’s found in black mushrooms, bean paste and dried shrimp. We get it straight up via the wonderful substance known as MSG, which some chefs use by the fistful, but also via common ingredients like stock or broth, not to mention anything fermented.
Interestingly, our attachment to umami starts early: human breast milk is said to be very rich in the taste.
This arises some odd questions: Is this fifth taste responsible for our love for cheese and meaty food? …would it take us back to the days when we were happy breast suckers?
The other day my son asked me what kind of food I used to love when I was a little girl that I do not like anymore. Ketchup with scramble eggs was number one, rice with mayonnaise number two and cheese quesadillas with strawberry jam was number three! It seems I liked the combination of salty and sweet tastes… pretty close to umami flavour (misso soup is a bit salty and sweet isn’t it?)so.. the fifth taste is actually the first taste we ever had (in the case we were breast-fed), even before the sweet taste of fruit and carrot baby food found in the yummy Gerber jars!
Science is finding out and endorsing things that have been there all along… a new strand of DNA, the interconnection of human beings through and invisible matrix, a new planet, new species deep in the sea and a new found taste that my little baby girl is having plenty of…I´ll make sure she learns to say U-MA-MI.
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