Who can tame the tongue? – Umami

 

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Umami, the fifth taste

Umami from the Japanese (うま味), umami can be translated as “pleasant savory taste”. This neologism was coined in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda from a nominalization of umai (うまい) “delicious”. The compound 旨味 (with mi () “taste”) is used for a more general sense of a food as delicious.

“The strong savoury flavour that makes everything from spag bol to Marmite so hard to resist may serve a vital evolutionary purpose. We could even use it to fight malnutrition. Pass the parmesan”, said The Guardian.

Ikeda had noticed this particular taste in asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, but it was strongest in dashi – that rich stock made from kombu (kelp) which is widely used as a flavour base in Japanese cooking. So he homed in on kombu, eventually pinpointing glutamate, an amino acid, as the source of savoury wonder. He then learned how to produce it in industrial quantities and patented the notorious flavour enhancer MSG.

Fermentation also frees the umami – soy sauce, cheese, cured meats have it in spades. In the vegetable kingdom, mushrooms are high in glutamate, along with those favoured by children such as petit pois, sweetcorn and sweet cherry tomatoes. Interestingly, human milk is one of the highest MSG-containing mammalian milks.

Fermentation also frees the umami – soy sauce, cheese, cured meats have it in spades. In the vegetable kingdom, mushrooms are high in glutamate, along with those favoured by children such as petit pois, sweetcorn and sweet cherry tomatoes. Interestingly, human milk is one of the highest MSG-containing mammalian milks.

Just as humans evolved to crave sweetness for sugars and, therefore, calories and energy, and loathe bitter to help avoid toxins, umami is a marker of protein (which is made up of amino acids, which are essential for life). This begs two interesting questions. First, why is our innate penchant for umami best served by cooked or aged foods? Breslin’s answer is that cooking or preserving our main protein sources detoxifies them. “Part of the great digestion formula,” he says, “is not only the ability to procure nutrients, but it’s to protect yourself from getting sick while you do that. If you don’t get proper nutrition you can live to see another day, but if you’re poisoned, it can end it for you right there.”

Second, why are some fruits and vegetables that are low in protein, high in glutamate? Some cases, such as mushrooms, says Breslin, we cannot explain. However, for others, such as tomatoes, it could be the same reason why fruit is so sweet. “The sugar is there so you grab the fruit and spread the seeds around. It could be that the mixture of sugar and glutamate in some of these foods is there to make them extra attractive.”

My Questions:

  • How about those babies born with Lactose Intolerance, since milk is one of the highest containing mammalian MSG? Is this milk particular with cow’s milk or the human mother’s milk?