It’s a word spoken in hushed, worshipful tones by chefs and food lovers across the globe. It’s our linguistic and scientific attempt to define the undefinable, to try to conceptualize a flavor that does not exist by itself, but only as a supporting element to other flavors.
So what is Umami?
How the hell should I know? I’m an Irish girl raised Italian. I never even encountered the concept till I was in my late twenties and got interested (read “completely addicted” to) Chinese and Japanese food when I went to China and Japan and found out what that really was. Fortunately, other people DO know, and I have done my damn research. The following is a pricis of all the stuff I found so you don’t have to go digging if you want the down low.
The History of Umami (abridged)
How many times have you eaten something or even smelled something and thought “Damn, if I could bottle that up and sell it, I’d be a millionaire.” That must have been what Kikunae Ikeda was thinking back in 1907 as he relished a bowl of particularly delicious ramen. Fortunately for the whole world, this dude was a chemist so he could literally do that, and in 1908, he did.
He figured out that it was the konbu in the dashi of that fateful bowl of ramen that produced the deliciousness, and proceeded to chemically unwind the elements and flavor compounds of that plant until he’d figured out exactly which was responsible.
Of all the little crystals that fell out of his test tubes, It was a glutemic acid crystal, which he dubbed monosodium glutamate, or MSG, that proved the key to the flavor party that happened in his mouth.
He patented his “Monosodium Glutimate” and started selling MSG crystals as “Aji-No-Moto” or the “Essence of Flavor.” Except no one was buying that shit. So he called the mind-blowing effect it had the “Fifth Taste” and coined the term “Umami,” to market it to the culinary luddites in the western world, and it took off like wildfire. Or like crack, if you think about the crystals and..you know what? Nevermind.
Just to clarify, and I’m clarifying this because I LOVE this fact: the whole concept of “Umami” with which everyone is so obsessed, and which has now been scientifically acknowledged, started as a marketing ploy to sell flavor crystals.
And even better, that marketing ploy that has arguably changed the culinary world as much as N.W Ayer changed the diamond market with the DeBeers campaign, was developed by a chemist, rather than a hot shot 5th avenue marketing agency. As a former marketer and agency person, this fact fills me with a vicious joy.
So, How does Umami do that Voodoo it do?
Flash forward to 1985 when Umami was officially recognized as the scientific term to “describe the flavor of glutamates and nucleotides.” So…What the hell does that mean? What actually IS a glutamate? Here is what I found:
Glutamates are neurotransmitters- chemicals that send messages along cells in the body.
We’ve got these flavor receptors in our tastebuds on our tongues and these react chemically to the contents of your mouth. If you’re lucky enough that the contents of your mouth contains glutamates in high quantities, then you get a great Umami “roundness” to the flavors you experience as those glutamates party hard with the receptors that recognize the umami sensation.
Foods containing glutemic acids are great sources of Umami. But foods that contain glutamic acid salts (glutamates) are even better. And arguably, MSG, the salt crystal itself, is the easiest to use and has been added to food since it was developed, in place of the arduous and time consuming process of actually…cooking.
If you’re all about not cheating with crystals flavor fairy dust, check out my post on umami rich foods for a long, but not nearly exhaustive list of foods that contribute to the grand Umami experience “naturally.”
Umami Before It Was Cool
Cooks the world over recognized the effects of Umami even if they didn’t codify the concept. Consider the foods added as flavorings: Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, anchovies, cured ham, – wait. I sound like I’m making a freaking pizza here.
And there’s a good reason for that. Next to Asian cuisines, arguably the cuisine that makes the most use of Umami is Italian. (If you think i’m wrong, tell me in the comments.)
Italians pride themselves on the simplicity of their recipes and have mastered the art of extracting the maximum amount of flavor from the minimum quantity of ingredients. Enter Umami.
Now, my grandmother, who was a fantastic cook in her own right, never in her 93 years of life uttered or even thought the word “Umami.” But she did teach me that adding a parmesan to meatballs made them taste more like the meat they are made of, and that dropping a few slivers of tinned anchovy in the oil base of a tomato sauce will make it taste more tomato-y rather than fishy. (Don’t tell my brother I put anchovies in the marinara!)
She had a fundamental, intuitive grasp of the concept of Umami and never even knew it. And so did most other cooks in the world, especially those who had to make the culinary equivalent of silk purses out of the (literal) sow’s ears they could afford.
Many other cuisines also have an intuitive grasp on this concept, and chasing it down in all its forms has become a bit of an obsession for me. An obsession I hope you’ll continue to join me on.
Cheers and good eating!