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.