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Oh, Mama, What's Up With Umami?

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Like fashionistas, foodies are trend-obsessed. Everyone likes to be ahead of the food curve because by mastering something new you can make more marvelous meals before the the next guy or gal does. One of the more delicious food trends for 2010 is “umami” (oo-MA-mee). Here’s what it is, what it means, where it’s from and how you can eat it every day.

The four well-known basic tastes are sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Umami is the fifth. It’s from the Japanese “umai” which means “delicious” and “mi” which means “essence”, and it describes profoundly tasty food that saturates your taste buds with a flavor that may have elements of, but is not entirely, seet, sour, bitter or salty. If you enjoy red wine, prosciutto, asparagus, portabellas, olives, bacon, “stinky” cheeses and miso soup, then you know and like umami.

According to David Kasabian, co-author of “The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami,” the best words to describe umami are “savory, mouth-filling, brothy, meaty, satisfying and rich.” Abundantly “umami” foods include soy sauce, Parmesan, vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh corn, aged beef, mushrooms, anchovies and Worcestershire sauce. Some are great on their own, while some, like anchovies, are better enjoyed when melted into a sauce or mashed in a classic Caesar dressing.

The three basic ways to get it into your diet are by eating umami foods (porcinis, beef, scallops), in umami-stoked dishes like Pad Thai (shrimp, nam pla fish sauce) and Pasta Puttanesca (anchovies, tomatoes, capers) and by grilling or braising meat.

A bacon-cheddar burger, explains Kasabian, is packed with umami. Bacon, cheddar and beef all have umami, and together they “synergize the umami effect.” Toss in sautéed mushrooms and you’ve struck an umami mother lode. Umami, he says, “alters our perception of other tastes, making salt, saltier, sweet sweeter, and bitter and sour less biting.” It is a taste that can’t be duplicated with any of the other four tastes.

Karen Page, co-author with Andrew Dornenburg of “The Flavor Bible” agrees. We all have the capacity to taste umami, and when we do it registers as “deliciousness,” she says. “You know it when you taste it.” Page points out that while soy sauce is quite salty you can’t just use it in lieu of salt, because it is not equivalent. It has a taste beyond salty. “Umami,” she says, “has a different expression of flavor.”

Since things like soy sauce and aged cheeses have existed for a millennium or two, it begs the question as to why umami is just now gaining a foothold in public parlance. It’s partly because chefs are more aware of it and integrating it into menus, partly because the scientific basis for a “fifth taste” was established only recently. In the early 2000s the scientific magazine “Nature” identified a specific taste receptor for glutamate, an amino acid. Umami is that amino acid, glutamate. This legitimized umami as a genuine basic taste. But to fully understand umami, you have to include a few words about that wildly unpopular additive, monosodium glutamate, MSG.

According to “A Short History of MSG, Good Science, Bad Science and Taste Cultures” by Georgetown professor Jordan Sand, in 1908 Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda isolated an ingredient that gave his soup a rich, savory taste. That ingredient was glutamate, an amino acid originally identified in 1866 by German chemist Dr. Karl Rittenhausen. Dr. Ikeda extracted glutamate from kombu, a type of Japanese seaweed, mixed it with salt and invented MSG. He called his new invention “umami,” meaning “utterly delicious,” until he could come up with a better name. He never did. He patented his new seasoning, marketing it as a way to make bland and/or nutritious food taste better.

The use of MSG spread throughout Japan and into China, where the Chinese, in a burst of nationalistic pride, created their own version. In the 30s and 40s, MSG entered the American diet via canned and frozen foods. After World War II it went into military rations. Sand says that the military, in the person of Colonel John D. Peterman, quartermaster of the Food and Container Institute for the armed services, recognized MSG’s importance because “flavorless rations can undermine morale as quickly as any other single factor in military life.” By 1947 MSG was sold as “Ac‘cent” seasoning. By the 80s and 90s people began to avoid it due to health concerns.

Unfortunately, many people equate MSG with umami, says Kasabian. “If you use MSG, you taste umami. If you taste umami, then there must be MSG,” which ignores the fact that umami exists naturally. “Natural glutamates are as fundamentally different from MSG, as perhaps the natural sweetness of a ripe, just-picked strawberry is worlds away from refined sugar,” he writes. Enhancing taste involves more than adding a chemical. MSG is “bereft of the other tastes, aromas, nutrients, sights, smiles, memories and other satisfying sensations that natural umami transports along with it.” Think, “fast food burger” then think, “ground-chuck grilled bacon-cheddar-mushroom burger.”

As further proof of the difference, excessive amounts of MSG have been linked to allergic reactions while over-consumption of food with naturally occurring glutamates, i.e., beef, oysters, balsamic vinegar, do not trigger those adverse reactions. MSG and natural umami are simply not one and the same.

Some food trends are just fads, others broaden culinary understanding, like umami. Cooking with umami is about achieving the most satisfying flavor combinations in addition to considering the usual - a dish’s texture, technique, appearance, aroma, temperature. “The Fifth Taste” shares umami-laden recipes from our nation’s most accomplished chefs and it’s the best and easiest way to learn about umami. Umami is not a silver bullet of taste but a tool to maximize taste. And taste is an itch that must be scratched.

Scratch away.

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