Umami

Sweet and salty, sour and bitter, are the four well-known tastes recognized by humans. The first two are associated with pleasurable sensations when the latter are usually warning signs for our body. The upper surface of our tongue is covered with thousands of small bumps which transmit such gustatory perception to our brain. It is just a little more than hundred years ago that a Japanese professor, Dr. Ikeda, discovered the fifth taste that people can sense:  UMAMI.

Different types of soy sauce

Umami, meaning “pleasant savory taste” in Japanese, is rather difficult to describe and recognize, in comparison with the four other basic tastes. The molecule behind Umami is glutamate, a natural chemical found in tomatoes and various processed food such as soy sauce. Japanese food is particularly rich in Umami. A major component of many Japanese dishes, a cooking stock called “dashi”, is an amazing concentrate of Umami. Dashi is made of a seaweed called “kombu”, “katsuobushi” or bonito fish flakes, heads, and entrails of small sardines and shiitake mushroom. All ingredients are cooked for hours to deliver their precious glutamic acids, the source of umami.

The basic ingredients of the Japanese dashi: kombu, katsuobushi, shiitake, small sardines.

Chinese restaurant soon followed the Japanese after the MSG molecule was synthesized and sold as a common food enhancer. Its extensive use can however cause discomfort and headaches, even if the US FDA as classified MSG as “generally recognized as safe” ingredient.

MSG from Ajinomoto, the largest producer in Japan

I invite you all to reveal to yourself this fifth sense of taste. For that, the very best and simple, is to pour a little soy sauce on “sunny-side-up” eggs and enjoy the gustatory ride. What a flavor bomb you have triggered here, at the first mouthful.

Japanese food is certainly the essence of our pentagonal sense. Dishes like “Udon” noodles and “Oden”, or even the common miso soup, are the true consecration of Umami. Enjoy them now, with a new state of mind, celebrating the complexity of our senses.

Yoroshiku o-negaishimasu.

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