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Umami: the taste we love but can’t describe

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

The word “umami” is, in many ways, literally a mouthful. First coined in 1909 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, the term translates roughly as “deliciousness.” With its satisfying, round consonants and open vowel sounds, the word approaches onomatopoeia — a phonetic approximation of the gustatory pleasure to which it alludes.

The experience of umami, typically described as the fifth taste, encompasses an array of sensory perceptions: Meaty and earthy on the palate, umami is the mouthwatering and tongue-coating sensation that gives bacon its irresistible appeal. This complex set of taste impressions arises from interactions between glutamate and nucleotides present in foods such as ripe tomatoes, blue cheese and dried mushrooms. In recent years, the expression has become a seductive buzzword, but for many, the nature of umami remains enigmatic.

In the new book “Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste,” translated from Danish into English and published by Columbia University Press, biophysicist Ole G. Mouritsen and chef Klavs Styrbaek attempt to demystify the concept.

Mouritsen had approached Styrbaek with the idea of coauthoring a book on the topic after overhearing the chef refer to umami, which was at that time still relatively unknown in Europe, in a cooking presentation. Together they embarked on a peripatetic exploration of food history, sensory science and culinary techniques. Their journey brought them to Japan to work with the Umami Information Center and observe the production of seaweed and katsuobushi (bonito flakes), before taking samples back to their kitchens in Denmark, where Styrbaek and his team developed umami-centric recipes using local ingredients.

“Umami” reads less like a cookbook than a comprehensive user’s manual/field guide, weaving together cultural perspectives and biochemistry with practical tips on how to improve the flavor of everyday dishes. Umami, as the authors point out, is a universal concept, which has been applied by cooks throughout history. Although the idea is most commonly associated with Asian cuisines, umami-rich foods can be found everywhere: the pungent cheeses of France, the cured hams of Spain and Italy, and the dubiously delicious fermented fish dishes of Scandinavia.

The Greeks and Romans made garum, a salty fermented fish sauce, as early as the 5th century B.C. Mouritsen and Styrbaek include a recipe for “modern garum” taken from a 10th-century Greek text — originally intended for “the busy Roman housewife” — and also provide an updated (and tastier-sounding) version, which uses charred onions, smoked mackerel and tomato juice.

Much of our contemporary understanding of umami comes from the work of Ikeda, who first isolated the compound monosodium glutamate from konbu seaweed extract in 1908. He posited that the substance was responsible for the savory taste of dashi soup stock, which is traditionally made with konbu and bonito flakes, and asserted that the sensation associated with MSG was — along with salty, sweet, bitter and sour — one of the basic tastes.

Recent research has shown that the combination of glutamate with inosinate (abundant in meat and fish) and guanylate (found in dried mushrooms) can result in a powerful synergistic effect, although the exact mechanisms have yet to be discovered. If you’ve ever wondered why hamburgers topped with cheese and ketchup are so delicious, herein lies the answer.

Mouritsen noted in an email that while working on the project “the most surprising and also rewarding experience of our collaboration was a deeper understanding of the general principle of umami as a synergy between different types of food,” and the authors reference umami’s combined effect throughout the book.

Cooks have long had an empirical understanding of it — dashi is made with both konbu and katsuobushi for good reason — and “Umami” includes several classic recipes that highlight the effect (such as cassoulet, Danish beef patties and ratatouille). Styrbaeck’s original recipes maximize umami through novel, creative combinations. Tomato sauce is added to monkfish liver and raspberries to round out bitterness, while nutritional yeast and blue cheese increase sweetness in a dessert of white chocolate cream and black sesame seeds. A chart on “12 easy ways to add umami” functions as a handy cheat sheet and advises readers to add anchovy paste to dressings, marinades and pates, or dehydrated blue cheese to “gravy that tastes a bit flat.”

The recipes are instructive and inspiring, though not all easy to execute. I doubt, for example, that many home cooks will be quick to replicate the traditional recipe for garum. I’m certainly intrigued by the “Nordic dashi,” which Styrbaek developed after conducting experiments with the Nordic Food Lab, a cutting-edge culinary collective affiliated with Copenhagen restaurant Noma, but have yet to muster the motivation to prepare the smoked shrimp-head powder that the recipe requires.

Still, less ambitiously inclined cooks will find plenty of practical guidelines and simple suggestions to make the most of their ingredients. Modern science may not be able to explain everything about how umami works, but Mouritsen and Styrbaek make one thing clear: Umami is a powerful culinary tool, and a delicious principle that can be applied in any kitchen.