W hy do Indians like a certain kind of Chinese food? Why do we prefer Italian food to French?
One answer is that we like cuisines that are carbohydrate-heavy. When we order a Chinese meal at a restaurant, we always order rice and many of us order both rice and noodles.
For most Indians, Italian food does not mean ossobuco or even veal scallopini. It means pasta and pizza.
But I’m beginning to wonder if there is another answer to this question.
Scientists now tell us that there are five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter (chilli-hot is classed, slightly bizarrely, in this category), and umami. Of these, umami is the most recent entrant to the list. For decades, the Japanese have believed that umami was a key taste but the West kept disagreeing till, in 2000, scientists found umami receptors on our tongues.
Because it is a relatively unfamiliar term, let me try and explain what umami is. Most food writers will use such terms as "savoury, meaty, brothy" etc. None of them seems to me to capture the essence of umami. Which is not odd, I guess.
You try and explain what "sweet" is to a man with no sense of taste and you’ll see the problem. Explaining taste is like explaining colour. How do you describe yellow, for instance?
Most of us, asked to explain yellow, would use analogy. We would say it is the colour of the yolk of an egg, of a sunflower and of the sun itself. So umami, for me, at least, is the taste of dried black mushrooms, of soya sauce, of chicken consommé and of parmesan cheese. It is a taste you find in tomatoes, though it is most concentrated in tomato ketchup.
Far Eastern cookery works on the basis that many – if not nearly all – dishes improve with a dash of umami. The Japanese will brag about the freshness of the fish they use for sushi. But they’ll add a dash of soya to the sushi for the umami heft.
The Chinese will use 12 different kinds of soya sauce ranging from very light to dark and sweet, but the purpose is the same: they like the umami flavour it imparts to all foods.
To understand what a shot of umami flavour feels like, think of a large spoonful of consommé. When the broth hits your palate, it fills your mouth with a taste that can only be described as meaty – so meaty, in fact, that it almost makes your mouth tingle. Or think of a mouthful of flavour-filled tomatoes or – if you can take it neat – a spoon of tomato ketchup. There may be a certain sweetness to the ketchup (they add sugar) but the basic taste is umami.
Umami-rich foods have a tendency to increase their umami content as they get older or more concentrated. A fresh shitake mushroom is a little umami. A dried (and then rehydrated) black mushroom is full of umami. A tomato has some umami. Ketchup has lots of it. Young parmesan is vaguely umami. Aged parmesan (of the kind they shave on your plate in Italian restaurants) is packed with umami flavour.
The Japanese were the first to isolate the umami flavour from seaweed and in no time at all, they began producing a packaged umami additive under the brand name Ajinomoto. The more they used Ajinomoto, they discovered something unexpected. Because umami flavours coat your entire mouth, they also change the way in which you taste other foods. So all tastes become sharper and more distinct. (And sometimes, more meaty.) In recent years, food scientists have proved that this is why soya sauce or ketchup or Parmesan have the ability to completely alter the taste experience.
Though the Japanese isolated the umami additive, it was the umami-craving Chinese who really took it to heart. Over the last century, every restaurant in China (and most homes) have become converts to monosodium glutamate (MSG), the chemical name for the umami additive. Now, you’ll find umami used all over the Far East, including Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, etc.
In the ’70s, MSG began to get a bad rap when American doctors reported cases of ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’: patients who responded to MSG-filled foods with tingling sensations, headaches and the like. The Ajinomoto company has spent millions of dollars on research trying to prove that glutamates occur naturally in the body (mother’s milk is full of them) and therefore, cannot cause allergies.
Some years ago, I toured Ajinomoto’s labs in Japan to try and understand the research. Broadly, they are right: glutamates do not cause the body’s immune system to respond with a full-on attack, so allergies are unlikely. But that’s not the whole truth. Some people have MSG intolerance (an intolerance such as, say, lactose intolerance, is not an allergy but presents very real symptoms anyway) which leads to ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’. But experience suggests that this only kicks in when MSG is used in huge quantities.
Most of us eat MSG all the time though we do not realise it. It is added routinely at all Chinese and Thai restaurants no matter what they tell you. Even if the chef does not deliberately add MSG, it will be present in the packaged masalas, pastas and sauces he uses. Or it will turn up in the kitchen under a different name: Gourmet Powder, Chicken Powder, Tasty Sauce, or whatever. Unless the kitchen uses too much, we rarely experience symptoms.
What does all this have to do with the popularity of Chinese or Italian food in India?
Well, here’s my theory: The umami taste is rarely found in Indian cooking. We don’t use aged cheese, black mushrooms, soya sauce or any umami-rich ingredient. Even when we do use tomatoes in dishes, we usually combine them with so many other flavours that the umami taste is killed off and the tomatoes are used only for colour.
But, or so I believe, over the last four decades, we have discovered and fallen in love with the taste of umami at some subconscious level. Let’s take the most basic kind of Indian Chinese, the sort made by a thelawallah, when he churns out noodles, fried rice or sweet-and-sour chicken. Forget about the chilli he adds because that’s just misdirection. His food is based on three ingredients: soya sauce, tomato ketchup and Ajinomoto. All three are packed with umami.
Think now of Indian Chinese restaurants. Show me a Sino-Ludhianvi chef who says he does not use Ajinomoto and I’ll show you a liar. And even without the MSG, the basis of the cuisine is soya sauce. As if that is not enough, the restaurant will put more soya on the table and encourage us to use it. What, for instance, is the taste profile of chicken sweet corn soup: a can of sweet corn plus stock (umami) plus MSG (umami) plus the soya (umami) you add at the table.
The real reason Indians like Chinese food of all kinds is because, without actually realising it, we have become umami junkies.
Consider the sushi boom. Do you know a single person who eats his sushi without a generous quantity of soya? Or consider Indian-Italian food. Essentially it is a way of combining two umami flavours – tomato and cheese – in different ways. A pizza has both. And when we eat pasta, we ask for a red tomato-based sauce or a hit of cheese. (Not many takers for pesto or herb sauces, you will note.) Or consider the popularity of Indian food cooked by traditional Muslim chefs at restaurants at all levels, from Dum Pukht downwards. The basic difference between their recipes and those preferred by Hindu cooks or catering college-types is the liberal use of stock. And what is stock? Pure umami.
The food business seems to have realised this. When I visited Ajinomoto’s headquarters in Japan all those years ago, they fumed about some Indian multinationals that wrote ‘No added MSG’ on their packets of ready-to-eat noodles. On yes, they said, there may be no MSG in the noodles, but these guys buy tonnes of the stuff from us. They put it in all their Indian packaged foods. Nobody expects those to contain MSG so they don’t look for it in the list of ingredients. (In any case, there are now a dozen euphemisms for MSG so you will rarely find it described as that even when a product is packed with MSG.) Because we are all junkies for umami flavours, manufacturers of packaged foods are relying more and more on MSG to boost the taste profile of their offerings. Even standalone Indian restaurants are adding MSG to curries and the like.
But MSG is not the point. Umami flavours are. Even if you were to ban the use of MSG, Indians would still drift towards umami-rich foods. After centuries of being denied the full range of umami flavours, we have broken with the eating habits of our ancestors and embraced the fifth basic taste.
It just shows how difficult it is to predict food trends. Over the last 30 years, restaurateurs have believed that Mexican and Thai will be the cuisines that will flourish in India because we like chilli-hot flavours. Well, yes, we do.
But here’s the thing: it is our subliminal discovery of umami that really gets the Indian palate going. Give us soya sauce. Give us tomato sauce. And we will eat it, any way you serve it: as Chinese food, as Japanese sushi or as red-sauce Italian.
From HT Brunch, November 10
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