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The Delicious Taste of Umami

The Delicious Taste of Umami

Dr. Chee Huei Phing   Assistant Professor & Clinical Dietitian, Faculty of Science, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman

How many tastes can an individual taste? There is sweet, of course. Then, sour. Next, salty. Finally, bitter. So, that makes 4 tastes. Now, we have the 5th taste – umami.

Uma-what?

The story began when Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist, was enjoying a bowl of dashi, a type of Japanese soup made from seaweed. He tasted something that was beyond sweet, sour, salty and bitter – a taste that he described to be similar to the one commonly found in tomatoes, asparagus, cheese and meat, but did not resemble any of the established  tastes.

He decided to call this taste ‘umami’. That word is a composite of the Japanese words umai (‘delicious taste’) and mi (‘taste’) in Japanese).  While many Malaysians may not be familiar with umami, this term has been used by the Japanese to describe this 5th taste since the early 1990s.

Well, what is it, really?

Describing what umami tastes like – especially in words! – can be difficult because there is no English word that is synonymous with umami. The best we can do is to compare it to an earthy “savoury” or “meaty” taste.

According to the Umami Information Center, umami is a mild but pleasant, lasting savoury taste stimulated by a type of amino acid, L-glutamic acid, and substances called ribonucleotides, such as guanylate and inosinate, that are present naturally in food such as fish, meat, vegetables and dairy products.

Glutamic acid is present in most living things, When you cook food that contains this substance (such as meat), or when you ferment it (such as the case with cheese), L-glutamic acid is produced to give such food its delicious taste. This also happens when fruits such as tomatoes ripen. We call umami a taste because studies found that our tongues have special structures (receptors) to detect it, just like we have receptors for the other 4 tastes. 

What can I eat to get this umami taste?

Glutamic acid can be found in vegetables and meats, and is generally found in food containing high levels of L-glutamic acid such as spinach, tomatoes, celery, shellfish, green tea and cheese. The amount of glutamic acid present usually increases as these foods age or ripen.

In fact, you may have tasted umami flavours without realising it. If you want to pinpoint the umami taste, try combining particular foods for maximum flavour. Some may seem gross to you, but think of it as experimentation in the name of science! (Besides, you may develop a liking for certain combinations.)

  • Cheese and bacon
  • Anchovies or parmesan cheese and tomato sauce
  • French fries and ketchup
  • Parmesan cheese and pasta
  • Dried mushrooms and your favourite dish

The MSG connection

Identifying the umami taste requires some practice, as it is not as obvious as other tastes. For instance, when tasting a chicken broth made without seasoning or salt, we may find it bland. On the other hand, if we were to add a pinch of monosodium glutamate (MSG) to the chicken broth, it tastes better. The broth is not simply saltier, it tastes … something else, something more delicious. That something else is umami.

Adding MSG is one of the simpler and more direct ways to creating the umami taste, hence the frequent association of the taste with this substance. MSG is frequently added to dishes, hence, often, when we say that a dish is not ‘delicious enough’, we are actually saying that it is not umami enough!

MSG is a flavour enhancer, recognised by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food ingredient that is safe.

However, its use remains controversial. Chinese dishes are famous, or notorious in some cases, for containing liberal amounts of MSG. Reports of adverse reactions to Chinese food – called the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome – first appeared in 1968, which includes chest pains, mouth or jaw numbness, unusual sweating, headaches and a sense of facial swelling. MSG has been blamed for these reactions, but so far studies have failed to unearth conclusive evidence that this is the case.

Still, the use of MSG remains controversial, hence the FDA requiring to be listed on the label when it is added to food. Perhaps the best approach is similar to how we approach other kinds of food – everything should be enjoyed in moderation, even that wonderful umami feeling.

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