Published in Vox, December 10, 2018
Author: Rachel Sugar
“A biopsychologist explains what mushrooms, burgers, tomatoes, and aged hard cheese all have in common.”
“What foods have the umami taste? Many foods around the world contain it. For example, there are high concentrations of it in many cheeses, and these cheeses are the most attractive ones. It’s in certain mushrooms. It’s certainly found in meat as well; seafood in particular has high levels. Tomatoes have very high levels, for reasons that are unclear to me. It’s in our diet everywhere; it’s just that it’s not by itself. The only place it’s by itself is if you use the [sodium glutamate] powder.
“That sodium glutamate product is MSG, the often (unfairly) maligned ingredient associated with Chinese restaurants, and is known for making food more delicious. So is MSG … pure umami?
“The idea that there was a separate taste was based on the discovery that pure MSG — sodium salt of glutamate, which is the most common amino acid in the body — has a different taste that is characteristic of savoriness, and that taste different than sweetness, is different than sour, and it’s different than saltiness, and is different than bitterness.
DIY Taste Test
“The best thing to do is a demonstration, where you take, say, a soup stock that’s very low in glutamate, and you taste it, and then you add glutamate to that soup, and you taste that, and you see a remarkable difference. Part of the difference will be in this flavor, which seems to be chicken broth-like, but the MSG makes it more like that. Plus, you’ll have this mouth-feel. That’s what umami is, according to the original definition.
“If you do this demonstration for yourself, the thing that’s pretty striking about it is it works on almost everybody. You can really tell the difference. It would be like adding sugar to something, almost. Not quite as good as that; it’s more subtle than that. But it’s very clear.
“I tried the experiment, only with vegetable stock, and the difference was stark. Helen Rosner [article in The New Yorker] described the “savory chemical magic” of MSG as best used on occasions when “you just want something to taste like itself, only transcendently better.”
“Without MSG, my mediocre broth was very mediocre. With it, it was richer and fuller, still vegetal, but with a meaty depth; not different, exactly, so much as better, like an Instagram filter for food. The un-doctored version felt watery by comparison, like it was missing something. Which it was: umami, in the form of MSG.”