The Taste With Vir: Understanding umami
Whether people finally understand what umami means or not, everyone is going to be talking about it.
It is a buzzword in global foodie circles, so I guess you have come across the term ‘umami’ before. Until the beginning of this century, hardly anyone (outside of Japan, and I am not sure about all of Japan, anyway) knew what umami was. And even today, many people who misuse the term to mean ‘harmony of flavour’ (as the French sometimes do) don’t really understand it at all.
Part of the problem is that it is very difficult to define umami. This applies to all the basic tastes as well, not just to umami. For example, how do you define ‘salty’? Tastes are difficult to put into words. So usually, we fall back on examples. Seawater is salty, we say. Or honey is sweet.
This doesn’t work so well with umami because the examples people use are often actually more confusing than defining the taste would be. Umami is the taste of chicken broth, we are told. But somebody else will say ‘umami’ is the taste of soya sauce.
Any lay person recognises that chicken stock and soya sauce do not taste the same so this is especially confusing. When people quote other examples, like Parmesan cheese, for instance, it gets even more complicated. Do Parmesan and soya taste the same? Nor does it help when American foodies describe umami as a ‘meaty’ taste. Well, it is. And it isn’t. There is nothing particularly umami about a mutton kabab, for instance.
This is the kind of confusion that led scientists, for years, to deny that there is any such taste as umami. They only shut up when umami receptors were found on our tongues near the receptors for sweet, salty etc.
I have given up trying to define umami because, as we have seen, it is so confusing. But, as US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about obscenity in 1964, “I know it when I see it.” I know umami when I taste it.
The chicken broth example is what has really confused people so ignore it. Think instead of soya sauce (pretty much the template for umami flavours) or dried shitake mushrooms. Now, try and think if one of the flavours in those ingredients reminds you of a flavour you also find in tomato ketchup. Or in some cheeses. Or in some fermented sauces like Thai nam pla (fish sauce). If you try them all together you will recognise that they have a certain something in common, a savoury taste that is different from say, salty or sour.
If you do find that commonality of flavour, then you will be following in the footsteps of the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda who set out in 1908 to figure out what made dashi so distinctive. Dashi, as you probably know, is the ubiquitous Japanese stock, often made with flakes of the Bonito fish that Japanese cooks use to add an extra oomph to everything. (Japanese food has very delicate flavours so a little oomph goes a long way.)
Ikeda conduced that the oomph in dashi came from a particular kind of seaweed. He tried to isolate the substance that gave the seaweed its oomph and discovered a molecule that contained the secret. Being a commercially minded scientist, he made crystals from that molecule and began packaging them. Thus, was born ajinomoto, the additive that is used all over the Far East. (And now the West except in the US because Americans think it may give them a headache). Ikeda used the word umami for the flavour from the Japanese word umai (delicious).
Ajinomoto was a glutamate, a substance that occurs naturally in the body and in many foods. (Technically there is a chemical difference between Ajinomoto which is made from MSG and bodily glutamates that involves different numbers of atoms in the molecule, but the flavours are the same.)
Once scientists learned how to measure the glutamate in various food ingredients, they discovered that lots of foods were full of glutamate-rich flavour. Japan has its dashi but all of East Asia also has soya sauce. The Italians have their passata and other tomato sauces. And of course, they have Parmesan. Chefs all over the West add anchovies to their sauces without understanding why. It turns out that preserved anchovies have a high glutamate content and add umami flavours to food.
Science can now tell us which ingredients are high in glutamates and we know that when we preserve many ingredients (by drying or fermenting), their umami count shoots up. Why do you suppose Italians sun-dry their tomatoes? Well, because that boosts their umami factor. Fresh tomatoes have 250 mg of glutamate per 100 grams. But once you dry them, that shoots up to between 650 and 1,140 mg.
Why, when fresh shitake mushrooms are plentiful, do chefs still prefer to use dried shitake in East Asia? Well, because the glutamate content of fresh shitake is 70 mg per 100 grams. Once you dry them, it becomes 1,060mg. Any fermented sauce is rich in umami. Thai Nam Pla has 950 mg. Soya Sauce can be all umami: 1,700mg per 100 grams.
Some people love umami. Some don’t. I am a fan. I order junk sushi in India only so that I can dip the rice in soya sauce. I love lots of Parmesan on my pasta. My wife is less keen. (Though she loves nam pla so that is confusing.) But basically, if you don’t like umami, you won’t like East Asian food.
I have long believed that the absence of umami in Indian cuisine made us suckers for the umami explosion when it came along. That’s why we love Indian Chinese—tomato ketchup and soya sauce. That’s why we like tomato sauce on pasta. The entire Indian sushi boom is based not on fish but on the combination of rice and soya.
In the West, it is a little more complicated. The sushi/Japanese boom is soya/umami based. So was the Chinese food boom till Americans invented Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, the claim that ajinomoto could give you headaches. (There is no scientific evidence for any allergy but yes, a small minority of people are intolerant to large quantities of MSG, the molecule in ajinomoto.) The French managed to rule over Vietnam for years but never took many umami flavours from the local cuisine to add to their own.
In nearly every western country, umami has either entered by the backdoor or become a favourite with a new generation. During World War II, the US army added MSG, the chemical heart of Ajinomoto (they would have used ajinomoto itself but they were at war with the Japanese) to secretly oomph up the bland rations issued to soldiers. And the packaged food industry has always used MSG though the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome scare made this difficult in the US. You will find MSG in Indian packaged foods too though this may not be advertised.
But what has completely changed the perception of umami is the tendency of a younger generation of American chefs (most famously New York’s David Chang) to act as though it is a prized flavour. Interview a modern American chef and the term umami will usually turn up in the conversation. Entire chains of restaurants are now based on umami — Umami Burger for instance.
Europe has been slower to catch on. The French still don’t understand it. A few British chefs play around with umami flavours, but it is not a concept that the average Brit understands.
I reckon that will change all over the world in this decade. Whether they finally understand what it means or not, everyone is going to be talking about umami.