The fifth component of taste
Umami is what chemist Kukunae Ikeda called the fifth component of taste, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter, which he discovered in 1908. Umami makes a dish taste savoury. Ikeda chose the term umami for this, which translated from Japanese means tasty/delicious.
While the identification of the tastes sweet, sour, salty or bitter via the tongue and the brain have been known for a long time, the discovery of the fifth taste, umami, is still comparatively young.
The experiment with algae broth
Professor Kukunae Ikeda, University of Tokyo, investigated the flavour components of a broth made with kombu seaweed.
He identified a flavour that was different from the previously known four flavour components and made the broth taste particularly savoury. He named the new flavour Umami.
In 2002, the specific receptors of the tongue that pick up the umami taste were identified. This finally established the fifth flavour in scientific terms.
Umami is loved globally
Umami taste is universally perceived as palatable. At times, we have a strong craving for foods with a high umami content. Umami has a flavour-enhancing effect.
Steak with shitake mushrooms is found on many menus around the world. The explanation for this is umami. Beef and shitake mushrooms are very high in umami. Combine the two and the umami component is enhanced even further: umami nirvana.
What’s in umami?
Professor Ikeda had discovered the monosodium glutamate as a component for the savoury savoury taste in his experiments with Japanese broth (dashi)
Approximately 2 million tonnes of glutamate are produced annually for the food industry. Small amounts of glutamate are sufficient for flavour enhancement and so glutamate is present in almost all finished products.
Glutamate has an image problem
That is why you often find the term yeast extract – whose seasoning is based on glutamate – as an ingredient on the package of a ready-made meal.
Glutamic acid and its salts “E 620” to “E 625” are legally permitted as an additive because harmful effects, apart from a certain hypersensitivity in some people, have not been proven so far, as long as it remains at the intake of usual amounts.
Umami at it’s best
Even though umami is the youngest flavour from a research point of view. The ancient Romans already loved the umami taste and used garum, a seasoning made from fermented fish, in many dishes.
The high umami content of ancient garum and its popularity in cooking at the time are roughly comparable to the fish sauce used in Asia.
Here’s where umami comes in naturally
Some foods naturally have high levels of glutamate: Parmesan cheese, fully ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, beans and potatoes, meat, fish and eggs.
This is why an Italian pasta sauce is often made with finely chopped, pickled anchovies, which accentuate the umami even more in the tomato sauce. Add to this perfect pasta and freshly grated Parmesan on top: umami food at it’s best – from GloriousMe’s point of view.
When we want to indulge, we often crave umami
Many dishes we eat when we want to indulge are typical umami combinations: Zurich schnitzel made with veal and mushrooms, Italian tagliatelle consisting of beef, tomatoes and plenty of Parmesan shaved on top, saltimbocca, and fish or meat with a freshly prepared tomato sauce.
Is there a more fitting place than Piedmont to found a university of gastronomy there? In Pollenzo, near Bra, they founded such a university in 2004 and, of course, the subject of umami is on the curriculum.
Did Kant know umami?
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung magazine ran the headline “Did Kant know Umami?” to accompany a report on page 40 about the classic dish of Königsberger Klopse. This dish, with capers and anchovies, is also an umami highlight.
Abb. Portrait: Kukunae Ikeda