Most people are familiar with the four elemental tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But did you know that there is a fifth taste? Umami, which translates in English to mean “savory” or “meaty,” originates from Japanese cuisine. Chemically speaking, the taste of umami comes from the glutamic acid, an amino acid found naturally in foods such as meats, fish, dairy products and vegetables.
To give a brief background, this taste has been around for years. At the beginning of the twentieth century a Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda began experimenting with konbu, a type of dried seaweed used to make dashi, the flavorful broth that characterizes many Japanese recipes. He observed that the broth had a taste common to many savory foods, but that the taste did not fall into the salty, sweet, bitter or sour categories. He was eventually able to isolate the flavor in konku broth by extracting crystals of glutamic acid, or glutamate. He called the taste umami. Ikeda later sold the patent to a Japanese company that produces food seasonings, cooking oils, foods and pharmaceuticals, which then brought the product to the US in 1917 in the form of monosodium glutamate, or MSG (a topic for another blog post.) In 2000, the presence of the fifth taste was confirmed by researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine, who discovered taste receptors for umami.
Today, we often hear that umami “is the taste of MSG.” To get a sense of what umami actually tastes like consider foods such as Parmesan cheese, seaweed, asparagus, mushrooms and cheddar cheese, all which have that “meaty” taste of umami, due to their high level of the amino acid glutamate.
Last Saturday, I attended an umami cooking class at the Le Cordon Bleu Institute of the Culinary Arts. My reason for attending was to learn more about this “fifth” taste and how it is used in recipes to made plain foods (like a burger) more savory (like the mini bomb burger). I have to also admit that I was anxious to learn the real pronunciation of this taste, which I’m told is (oo-MAH-mee) or for those of us that really need it “spelled out,” (oooh-mommy!) We made three amazing dishes.
The first was homemade ketchup. Living in Pittsburgh, and growing up on Heinz, I admit I was a little skeptical. Turns out, it was wonderful and a great compliment to the Truffle Parmesan Fries. To accompany the fries and ketchup were mini bomb burgers, made with fish sauce, garlic and a dash of sugar (which reacts with the fish sauce to promote the “bomb” taste.) The two other entrees were Mushroom Parmentier and lastly shrimp, asparagus, prosciutto and pasta (below).
All dishes proved to be exactly as the translation goes, savory, meaty and delicious. I can’t describe them as the healthiest dishes but if you savor a small portion of each they are sure to prove very satisfying.