September 20, 2009
I have always wondered about the fifth taste umami (deliciousness) which is flittingly indescribable – mouthfeel, savoury, mmm-ness. I recently came across a couple of good sources of information. Rowan Jacobsen’s post on Oysters has a great description of umami (not to mention Oysters).
Harold McGee breaks it down into amino acids (especially glutamic acid) and the actual taste receptors for umami. In his highly recommended book “On Food and Cooking”, McGee tells us that the word umami was coined in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda who noticed that naturally forming MSG (monosodium glutamate) on Kombu seaweed had characteristics of taste that were different from the usual four – sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
Umami is naturally intensified from protein breakdown by aging or curing – foods like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, soy sauce and miso are very high in umami. Some foods like kombu, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes (especially the seeds and surrounding jelly) are born with it. I also remember reading somewhere that umami may directly affect the limbic system which seems to agree with my personal experiences with foods that are high in it.