The New York Post reports that the biggest new taste sensation to hit NYC restaurants is umami. Chefs are going to all sorts of lengths to incorporate umami in their menus, some at great expense, others by using sneaky corner-cutting ways to reproduce the taste. There have even been suggestions that customers are addicted to it and keep returning again and again because they can’t get enough of the great taste!
So what is umami? Essentially it’s a fifth basic taste to add to the four described by the Greek philosopher Democritus some 2,400 years ago: sweet, salt, sour and bitter. The word umami itself is Japanese and is the name given to the taste by its discoverer, Kikunae Ikeda, who identified it while researching at Tokyo Imperial University. It’s variously translated as “delicious”, “savoury” or “yummy”.
Many descriptions of umami claim that it’s difficult for a Westerner to grasp but that it’s a well-established concept in Asian cuisine. That’s debatable. For starters, Ikeda didn’t come up with the concept until 1908, although of course foods high in umami have long been mainstays of Japanese, Chinese and Thai cooking.
But as well as that, gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin (famous for saying “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”) had already made a very similar discovery. In his book Physiology of Taste, he speculated that a molecule called osmazome was responsible for giving meat its flavour. As it happened, he was wrong – there are several different molecules responsible – but the basic idea was sound.
Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the umami concept has been more readily adopted in Asia than elsewhere. Ikeda himself used his discovery to go into business, patenting the manufacturing process for monosodium glutamate (essentially, a pure version of the chemical responsible for the umami sensation) and setting up a company to make it.
MSG is of course notorious in the West as a food additive which chefs in cheap Chinese restaurants sprinkle liberally into everything they cook. It’s also been blamed for causing headaches and dehydration, although there’s very little evidence that it’s harmful when consumed in moderation.
But there are plenty of ways in which you can get the umami taste into your food without resorting to artificial additives. It was the distinctive taste of kombu, the Japanese edible seaweed often used to make dashi broth, that inspired Ikeda’s original research. Kombu is particularly high in glutamate. Other foods with high glutamate levels include soy sauce, fish sauces (including Worcestershire sauce, which is made using anchovies), Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and tomatoes. Concentrating the ingredients, as you might expect, enhances the amount of umami flavour each of these – which no doubt explains why tomato purée and even tomato ketchup are such key ingredients for the keen cook.
Enhancing the umami taste of food by natural means has recently become something of a fad among trendy New York restaurateurs, although Heston Blumenthal was writing about it in The Guardian as long ago as 2002.
There’s even a website about MSG-free umami recipes. You might think that the manufacturers of MSG would be up in arms about this, no? Erm, no. In fact, they’re the people behind the website – the idea being to get people used to the idea that MSG is a chemical contained naturally in several foodstuffs and that it is itself natural and can be used in the same way that salt can.
So is umami just another passing craze? Possibly not. Molecular chefs like Blumenthal are taking it seriously. So too are biologists, biochemists and agronomists; the Scottish Crop Research Institute have been researching the link between umami content and tastiness in potato varieties, and have established that potatoes with high levels of umami chemicals consistently do better in taste trials – which makes it easier for potato breeders to predict which new strains will do well.
All the same, I can’t help feeling that the whole umami restaurant thing is yet another fad. Did we really need food scientists to tell us that food is tastier if you add a dash of TK or a grating of Parmesan? Or that meat dishes seem a bit thin if you don’t make them with a decent stock? Any cook worth their salt (or their MSG, for that matter) already knows this – and uses all these key ingredients already. Spare us the hype.