Saturday, September 29, 2012

Umami - the fifth sense of taste!

I took an Introduction to Asian Cuisine cooking course this week.  It was the first cooking class that I have ever taken and I came away a more informed cook and excited to put into practice some of the things that I learned.  A few fun facts from the course may seem elementary but I’m only 4-5 years into my journey as a cook and they seemed important enough to me to share.

 Fun facts:
1)    Never prepare pork or poultry without brining, period (I’ll post a Brining blog entry soon).
2)    U.S. Chefs tend to overuse the savory herbs and spices, e.g. Cilantro, etc.   Those herbs should NEVER be the feature taste in any dish, they should be hiding in the background and used in such moderation that they provide a savory enhancement instead of overpowering the dish. 
3)    Wheat pasta must be taken off BEFORE it is fully cooked due to the thermal processes that allow it to continue to cook (Now I know why my pasta is always stuck in a big ball in the colander).
4)    Salt is a critical seasoning in ALL forms of cooking...many chefs actually add it in moderation to literally everything they cook, including things you wouldn’t expect, like brownies.
5)    There is a FIFTH sense of taste...I had no idea...Umami

Let me share what I learned about Umami through some reference materials that spell it out much better than my classroom notes could do justice:  

When we eat we use all our senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste) and form judgments about our food.  However it is the taste that is most influential in determining how delicious a food is. Conventional thinking was that our sense of taste was comprised of four basic, or 'primary', tastes, which cannot be replicated by mixing together any of the other primaries: sweet, sour, salt and bitter. However, it is now known that there is actually the fifth primary taste: Umami.[1]

Umami /ˈmɑːmi/ defined.  Umami is a reference to a ‘pleasant savory taste.’  As mentioned above It is the fifth of the basic senses we are all familiar along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Umami is known as a loanword (a word borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language. In this case Japanese to English and is often used to describe food as delicious.  Apparently the human tongue has receptors for L-glutamate, which is the source of Umami flavor which qualifies Umami as being distinct from the salty sense.

Umami is a pleasant savory taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. As the taste of Umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don't recognize Umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious.[2]

Umami takes many forms and is actually used in various forms all over the world. In Asia, umami is mainly found in beans and grain, fermented seafood-based products, shiitake mushrooms, kombu and dried seafood. In Western cuisine, there are also fermented or cured products derived from meat and dairy products, namely ham and cheese. The most well-known ingredient is the tomato.[3]

What forms do Umami take?
Umami food or seasoning made from fermented beans and/or grains; typically available in either paste or liquid form.
Umami seasoning made from fermented fish, prawns and/or other seafood. Available in either paste or liquid form e.g. fish sauces.
Umami food made from other ingredients like Worcester sauce made from tomatoes.


I hope you enjoyed this blog entry, there is so much to learn, so little time on the weekends to experience it...Keep On Eggin’ my friends!


[1] Paraphrased from the internet site Umami Info at http://www.umamiinfo.com/2011/02/What-exactly-is-umami.php
[2] ibid
[3] http://www.umamiinfo.com/2011/02/umami-culture-around-the-world.php