Umami – The Fifth Taste

A journey to explore Myanmar cuisine is loaded with anticipation – an exploration of tastes, flavors, fragrances, and the wide array of dishes placed in front, hold so much in store for our taste buds. A unique blend of three, four, even five tastes makes Myanmar cuisine delectable and immensely satisfying. Similar to other Asian cuisines, with distinct Indian, Thai and Chinese influences, Myanmar has a vast variety of dishes, each unique in appearance, appeal, taste and flavor. A dash of fish sauce, a spoonful of shrimp or fish paste, sprinkling of MSG (monosodium glutamate) may be common additives, but the taste  of each dish is distinct and aromatic, the only commonality being a depth and intensity which makes us all relish each mouthful, and we end up clamoring for more.

Why is it that some cuisines and dishes, have this unique quality, something different from the four basic tastes we have known all our lives, with a clear preference for some if not all of these – sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The secret lies in the fifth taste, Umami, that not too many of us know about. We have all been experiencing it but never put a name to that taste or realized that Umami is actually a different taste altogether, with different taste receptors in the mouth. It has taken the world nearly a century to add it to the official list of tastes, even though it has been one that is savored more and lingers the longest, on the tongue and in our memory.

Umami, literally meaning ‘deliciousness’, gets its taste from mainly the glutamate content in foods. It is that deep, intense, savory flavor found in meats and broths, matured cheeses and vegetables like ripe tomatoes and mushrooms. Though more often identified with Asian cuisine, Umami has existed in all cuisines all over the world, even though it wasn’t blatantly detectable. What was evident was the fact that certain tastes lingered in the mouth for much longer, leaving a deep sense of satisfaction.

Umami the newest officially recognized taste

The human tongue has as many as ten thousand taste buds, which are able to segregate the five different tastes, and research has revealed that amino acids contained in certain foods naturally can intensify the flavor of foods, and by certain cooking methods. This intense taste is different from the four basic tastes, and there have been long debates about whether Umami is actually a different taste altogether which can be experienced singularly or is actually an amalgamation of multiple sensations caused simultaneously. It needs to be clarified that ‘taste’ is actually based on one, singular sensation, while flavor stems from a combination of multiple sensations. Being very subtle, umami was, for a long time, perceived as a taste enhancer of certain food elements and not so much as a distinct isolated taste.

Though first discovered in 1908, by a Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, it got official recognition only 82 years later as the fifth taste in 1990, finally claiming its rightful place in the culinary world. Subsequently in 2006, neuroscientists at the University of Miami were finally able to locate the taste receptors for Umami, which proved to further validate its place in the list of tastes, and acknowledge one more taste that was felt and experienced but never distinctly defined. It has existed since time immemorial and unknowingly, products were used in kitchens in different parts of the world to enhance it, in the form of fermented barley sauces, fish sauce, soy sauce and tomato paste, to name just a few. Thus, these accentuated the taste of food laid out on tables in Rome, the Arab nations, England and China.

It has since, become much talked about, explored and advertised by food connoisseurs. Ikeda, a chemist, tried to isolate and replicate the intense taste found in kombu, an edible seaweed, eventually used his Umami discovery to create monosodium glutamate, MSG, the taste enhancer used extensively in Asian cuisines. MSG is what balances and enhances certain subtle tastes and flavors, leaving a pleasant, lingering savory taste.

Umami rich foods

Umami becomes evident in certain foods by the breakdown of their glutamate components which surface when these foods are ripened, aged, cured or fermented. The amino acid, glutamate, is found naturally in certain foods including meats, dairy, vegetables and fish. Glutamate breaks down when it perishes or ferments, typically upon cooking, as in meats, or in the ageing of cheese. Thus tomatoes ripening under the sun convert glutamate into L-glutamate, and this is what subtly improved its taste, which incidentally is different from the taste of tomatoes that ripen with chemicals in a cold storage.

Ikeda stated after his research that there is a similar, complex flavor to be found in meats, asparagus, tomatoes and cheese, with Parmesan having the highest concentration of Umami. Each of these foods, and many more, stimulate the back of the mouth, roof of our oral cavity and the throat, and the tongue senses a ‘furry’ feeling. The umami taste is protein based, mild, delicate and subtle, and even in highest concentration is does not become strong, all that it does, is harmonizes the other tastes and makes the end preparation delicious.

There are three main umami substances glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. Inosinate is used as a food additive to potato chips and other snacks, and while naturally procurable from bacterial fermentation of sugar, a lot of it is artificially produced. Guanlylate is also a food additive and flavoring agent, and most often, used in combination with glutamic acid.

Glutamate is an amino acid that exists in abundance in nature, in natural foods and is one of the twenty amino acids that help the human body. It is a significant protein component, playing an important role in the body metabolism, nutrition and signaling function. Glutamate produces the umami taste only when it is not bound by other amino acids, and when it interacts with specific taste cells on the tongue. Extensive research has revealed the clear profile of free amino acids, and how they influence the taste of foods.

Miso, seaweed, parmesan cheese, soya sauce, fish sauce, tomato paste, all contain a high level of the amino acid, glutamate. Amino acids are building blocks of protein, conversely, proteins are amino acids linked in chains. Umami is associated with soups and canned foods, perhaps because food manufacturers seek to enhance this taste to replace the sodium content and offering low sodium preserved foods.

Soy beans when fermented and processed develop a higher glutamate content and add to the umami taste of the food they are added to. Seaweeds (the edible varieties), are naturally high in glutamates, and when they form the base of Japanese soups, for example, add to the umami taste substantially. Kimchi, the Korean salad, is fermented and this adds to its taste.

Umami beyond Asia

Umami has become an acclaimed taste beyond Asian nations and its prevalence in cuisines of other countries is being recognized and appreciated.

Its place in our food and flavors repertoire is now well established, and awareness about it is spreading all over. There is now a big Umami information center, we hear about Umami lectures and workshops, an annual international symposium which has acclaimed chefs and taste scientists participating from the US, Japan, Denmark, Italy and other countries. Umami finds pride of place on magazine covers, restaurant names, and is a frequent topic of conversation.

In nature produce, tomato has been one plant extensively used in Western cultures with the highest Umami component, getting its rich meaty flavor from the high level of glutamates contained in it. The British savored it in walnuts and mushrooms as well.  Lotus root, potato, green tea leaves, seafood varieties, all fall in the umami rich food category.

The Italians found it in their mature varieties of cheese much more than the freshly prepared cheeses. Thus, parmesan scored over mozzarella, closely followed by cheddar, gouda, emmental and Roquefort varieties. It was discovered much later that as cheeses age, their protein content breaks down into free amino acids and this increases their level of glutamic acid.

Soups prepared in Japan and also in Western countries were found to have an equal, similar umami taste. This, despite the fact that entirely different ingredients and preparation methods were followed. In the west, soups are cooked on low heat for long periods till the depth of flavor is extracted from ingredients like meat and vegetables. The Japanese soup base dashi, uses kombu, the dried seaweed and dried bonito, the former being dried very slowly over a period of time, but when cooked, it releases its flavors very rapidly, and does not need to be cooked for long. The taste quotient of both is comparable on the umami scale.

Besides soy sauce, a big source of umami taste is MSG, or monosodium glutamate, a fine crystal powder that is a popular food additive and taste enhancer. MSG laced dishes are common in most of Asia, including Myanmar, where it is added while cooking and sprinkled on top. Statistics reported by the Japanese company Ajino Moto reveal that Myanmar people consume 52,000 tons of MSG per annum. MSG has been in the eye of the storm and subject to extensive criticism for its supposed side effects like skin rashes, migraines, and indigestion. However, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration has given it the clearance of ‘generally regarded as safe’. Local nutritionists advise an intake of less than 2 teaspoons per day. It is actually not the glutamate amino acid that is worrisome, but rather its combination with sodium that has the propensity to cause marginal side effects.

Even as culinary experiences get reinvented with variety and multiplicity, Umami is the taste that chefs are seeking to bring to the table in all parts of the world, creating what they call, ‘Umami bombs’ that are the ultimate gastronomic experience. These are dishes prepared out of multiple ingredients that contribute towards creating the umami taste, and the complex end result is delectable and long lasting. Umami is what is bringing variety, novelty in food experiences and excitement about food in general for a section of foodies who tire easily of usual traditional food preparations, always wanting something new.