Do you know how many basic tastes exist in real? Sweet, Salty, Sour and Bitter, Right!!! You must be wondering why I am asking this stupid question. Just to give you a hint that today the discussion will be all about a fifth taste that only few people know. Can you guess which that fifth taste is? If your answer is ‘Umami taste’ then you scored some brownie points here. Do you know how Umami taste feels on the tongue? Do you know which foods have the Umami flavors?
All your queries will be answered today only if you are interested in knowing about gastronomy in detail. At yumandawesome.com I am on journey to dive deeper and deeper in the subjects of food and I am trying to ensure that, your dive along with me becomes fruitful for you. So now you know that there are 5 basic tastes that help us in explaining the taste of food to others. But did you know that there are 12 tastes in total? Yes a total of 12 different tastes which you should know when you really want to be an expert food taster.
Why the Umami taste is the most sought after taste which makes you go gaga over it. Out of all the information that will be revealed to you, some will be liked by you and some you will find hard to digest. But in case of Umami taste, you can either love it or hate it but certainly can’t ignore it. So let’s not waste more time here and head towards the investigation.
Who Discovered Umami taste and When?
Before you know who and when, you should know that it is not an English word. Umami is a Japanese word which translates to “a pleasant savory taste” in English. It was discovered more than 100 years ago in 1908 by Japanese Chemist Kikunae Ikeda. Then too it was not accepted as a basic taste till 1985. In the year 1985 the first Umami International Symposium in Hawaii was held and this is where the Umami taste was accepted universally. This was the taste that described how ones tongue can identify glutamates and nucleotides.
It all started with the glutamate under scanner. Then in 1913 Ikeda’s student Professor Shintaro Kodama discovered that apart from Glutamates, the ribonucleotide IMP also has Umami taste. Later in 1957, Akira Kukinaka made a major discovery when he found that ribonucleotides and glutamates when combined together were capable of imparting synergistic effect of the Umami taste. The Umami taste intensifies in presence of these 2 substances.
These minor yet important findings have led to a tribe of food niche which people love and adore to an extent that most of the gourmet food business in the western world is making huge profits from it.
Science behind Umami Taste
I know you must be thinking now, is this going to be a science based mini lecture. Just to make you feel relived, I confirm that this won’t be your typical science based briefing. Umami taste is one of its kind when it comes to basic tastes like other. You can define sweet anytime, you can distinguish sour and bitter, and certainly you know it is salty if the salt content is more. But with Umami taste even if you feel you can’t explain or easily distinguish. This is why a small dose of science is called upon for explanation.
Summing everything is short, Umami taste is officially the taste of Glutamate which is an amino acid that makes proteins. This is the reason that artificial Mono Sodium Glutamate is considered as a taste enhancer and is added to many food preparations. Many foods does have the Glutamate content and thus imparts the umami taste to the palate.
To detect Umami taste the tongue has specific receptors on it. Umami taste comes only from 2 known and verified compounds called the Glutamate and ribonucleotides. These tiny molecules require specific receptors on the tongue. In fact some of these receptors are also present on duodenum (the first part of the small intestine). You don’t need to know the name of these receptors here.
These receptors are the sites where the GMP and ribonucleotide molecules bind and then the chemical signals are released in forms of neurotransmitters that makes your brain understand what is happening. Enough of this tough life lessons. I hope you are clear how the tasting business works inside your mouth now.
Foods having Umami Taste
Some of these foods must be familiar to you, some will be alien. Some you might have already tasted and some you will taste in future. Some you like and some you won’t be able to stand. Irrespective of your opinions all these foods combined have a fan base in billions around the globe.
Many foods have certain amount of free glutamate and thus have that Umami taste in them. The amount of glutamates per 100 gram defines the intensity of umami flavour that your tongue and brain can experience.
Have you ever eaten tomatoes? Do you like the taste? A little sour, a little juicy and a little something else. That something else is what your dose of umami taste is. Tomatoes have 140-250 mg/100 grams of glutamates. So now you can’t say that you don’t know what Umami taste is.
If you aren’t a fan of tomatoes, then have you tasted cheese? Specifically some aged cheeses like parmesan, cheddar, gruyere, manchego, Swiss cheese. If you have tasted even the basic cheeses like slice or processed, then you have experienced Umami taste. As the ageing increases the Umami taste profile improves and hence the cheeses have the glutamate contents in the range of 150-2000 mg/100 grams.
Mushrooms which are packed with proteins are sure to have glutamates and this is why the Umami taste of mushrooms makes them the most sought after gourmet food. Do you love mushrooms? If you have eaten mushrooms and felt a taste that had a balance of earthen, saltiness and a sweet note then this is how Umami taste could be defined. For me personally Mushrooms are true Umami taste ambassadors among the naturally occurring foods in the world. There is 180-100 mg/100 grams of glutamate in Mushrooms.
Are you a non-vegetarian? Do you like to eat meat? Can you tell me what is so appealing in the meat that you choose it over vegetables all the time? I will tell you that the Umami taste due to high protein content which packs the amino acid of Glutamic acid in huge amount. This is why the meats have that specific taste that you just can’t let go.
Seafood is almost the most flavorsome non-vegetarian food option just for one sole reason that the Umami taste quotient is just too good to handle. Minus the smell and if cooked to perfection the seafood is irresistible. As it too is packed with high protein content, the glutamate is sure to be present in all the seafood. 100-150 mg/ 100 grams is the standard content of glutamate only if it is converted to sauces such as fish sauce or oyster sauce, then the glutamate concentration increases to 900 mg/100 grams. That is intense.
What are your views on soy sauce? Do you like it in your Chinese and Japanese food? Soy itself is rich source of proteins and hence the soy sauce is packed with glutamate and gives any dish that kick of Umami taste. From light soy sauce to dark soy sauce the glutamate content ranges from 400-1700 mg/100 grams.
Imagine yourself on a mild rainy day. The street vendor walks in with his cart full of corn cobs. He is roasting a corn cob on the hot coal bed. Will you be tempted to go and buy one corn cob for yourself? The coal roasted corn cob sprinkled with lemon juice and some spice mix. I know your mouth is watering right now. That corn also has an umami taste to it. With glutamate content of 110 mg/100 grams it is quite popular around the world.
Embracing the Umami Taste
Are you in love with Indo-Chinese Food? Do you love Pasta and Pizza? If you answered with a ‘Yes’ then knowingly or unknowingly you are in love with the Umami taste. It is just a matter of perception that you don’t like mushrooms or meat but like Pizza and Indo-Chinese. If you look closer at these foods, you will learn that they are classic examples of how you have been manipulated in consuming Umami taste.
Tomato sauce has intense umami taste. Same goes with soy sauce. Cheese too has an umami flavour and so does the infamous MSG that goes in Indo-Chinese food. On Pizza and in making Pasta, Tomato based puree or sauces are used with cheese and thus the Umami taste flourishes in the dish and you keep liking it more and more. For any Indo-Chinese dish the base cooking is reliant on soy sauce and some MSG which enhances the Umaminess of the Indo-Chinese cuisine.
The world is familiar with the Umami taste, since 1985 when it was declared as official 5th basic taste it has really captured many hearts. In India the embrace has come more recently with an incline or liking towards the western foods. The traditional Indian food had flavours which were weak footed on Umami manipulation yet they stood above everything in the culinary world. So this highlights the fact that Indian food doesn’t rely on Umami taste much.
MSG the secret of Umami taste
You can still deny that you love Umami more but one thing you can’t deny is the fact that our beloved Maggi noodles also has traces of MSG. Maybe this gives the Maggi noodles that lifts the flavour which you savor heavenly. I am giving a famous example here because I know you can connect more with Maggi than any other food you have eaten.
So MSG is the supply that provides the Glutamate boost to any dish and lifts up entire taste quotient of the dish. You will be shocked to know that many mid-sized restaurants do add MSG in the food they serve be it Indo-Chinese, Italian, Indian or Mughlai. Maybe this is the reason that the outside food tastes so different and when you replicate it at home you just won’t get the same results with respect to the taste.
So isn’t MSG bad for you? I know that there is a big hype which states how MSG is bad for you. But you will be relaxed after reading this. MSG has been known to cause problems in some individuals especially the ones who have MSG intolerance just like lactose intolerance. So if you consume it in moderation then it won’t harm you. In fact MSG addition allows you to reduce the salt from the food and hence makes the dish a little healthier.
The Side Effects of MSG have been reported by a very small group of individuals and thus a large study with huge sample size needs to be carried out for all the allegations to be proven. Our body is capable to digest MSG by default. So you need not worry unless you eat both your meals outside.
Why Umami Taste is hard to explain?
Unlike other 4 basic tastes, Umami is an acquired taste even though the taste receptors on tongue are already present on your tongue since birth. Umami is known to work harmoniously with other flavours in a dish and hence it helps to increase the taste of that food. As discussed earlier the GMP and ribonucleotides if found in a particular food can work synergistically to impart more flavours to that food.
Umami can bring the saltiness out of the cheese, or the sweetness in the corn, or maybe the sourness from the tomatoes and perhaps the earthiness of the mushrooms. Umami taste refers to the glutamates that are present in the food which can work magically to heighten the other flavours. So what I feel is that if you want to know how Umami taste feels without any other flavours, then try putting few grains of MSG on your tongue. You will come to know.
So now tell me, were you already aware about Umami taste? Or is it because of me that you got enlightened? You can thank me by sharing this knowledge of food with your friends and families. I hope that a taste as difficult as Umami was made easier to understand by me. Now next time you will say confidently that I know about all 5 basic tastes. I hope so you get to showcase your knowledge soon enough. Till then keep trying new and untested Umami foods.
Some of them are asparagus, green tea (fresh leaves based), milk (unpasteurized raw), broth soups (paaya soup) and seaweeds. Keep experiencing and never stop. Having said this, I will take your leave for now and hope to see you soon in my next blog post. In case you have any queries then write to me at [email protected] or DM me at foodie_khiladi007. Please do share this blog with your buddies, keep smiling and spreading the smiles.