Humans have long been able to taste the savory flavor associated with red meats, mushrooms and cheeses, but it was only recently that western scientists recognized umami as our fifth basic taste. Umami, a Japanese term that translates into “delicious,” is the otherwise equivalent for that mouth-watering flavor many would characterize as savory. Not only is umami one of the five basic tastes, accompanying the likes of sweet, sour, bitter and salty; but it’s also revolutionizing the way in which many modern chefs cook. And although umami may be the latest culinary craze, its timeline spans over two thousand years.
In order to understand the evolution of umami, it’s important to understand the basic protein science behind its existence. There are a variety of different proteins, all of which are composed of different combinations of amino acids. Glutamic acid, also commonly known as glutamate, is the starting point to achieving the umami taste. It is also one of the most common amino acids in our bodies and vital for metabolism and brain function.
Consider glutamate the gateway to umami. The taste of umami – also referred to as the umami sensation – occurs when glutamate is bound with sodium. When a molecule consisting of these two components hits our taste buds, there are receptors on our tongue that essentially light up, transmitting the umami sensation to our brain. Many foods have naturally high levels of glutamate and are often used as ingredients to enhance the flavor of a recipe. While glutamate rich seasonings have been used for centuries, it wasn’t until 1908 when Japanese Professor Kikunae Ikeda isolated glutamic acid from kelp seaweed that umami was first scientifically identified.
Nearly ten years later a disciple of Professor Ikeda determined that another molecule, the ribonucleotide, could improve the umami sensation. He discovered that when a ribonucleotide comes into contact with an umami molecule (glutamate and sodium), a synergistic effect occurs to the flavor of the food. The best way to understand this synergistic effect is to consider putting two ingredients together. Normally, one plus one equals two, but when one is an umami molecule and two is a ribonucleotide, the resulting taste intensity is higher than the sum of both ingredients. Today, many popular chefs and restaurateurs commonly refer to this flavor explosion as the “umami bomb.”
Now that we’ve defied basic math to determine a scientific element of umami, I encourage you to discover the umami sensation for yourself. There are a variety of foods and seasonings to experiment with to make your favorite savory dish, from ripe tomatoes to aged meats. And even if you can’t recount the science behind the flavor, just remember that umami is the key ingredient to making good food taste even better.
This post is based on The Flavor of Marriage video entitled, “The Science of Umami and MSG,” shown below: