The Fifth Taste Is Umami

Joe Fowler
Author: Joe Fowler Time for reading: ~5 minutes Last Updated: October 04, 2022
The Fifth Taste Is Umami

Our penchant for umami—the only recently recognized “fifth taste” after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter—is a fascinating part of gastronomic evolution. Just a few years ago, research confirmed that our mouths contain taste receptors for this relatively new savory taste (the other four “basic tastes” have been prevalent for several

The powerful savory flavor that makes everything from spaghetti mix to bread so delicious may serve a vital evolutionary purpose. We can even use it to fight malnutrition. Almost 1.8 million years have passed since an intelligent person learned to cook. Yeast bread, for example, was invented only thanks to a good coincidence of circumstances. However, today humanity has come to develop the most complex culinary skills.

Our penchant for umami —the only recently recognized “ fifth taste ” after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter—is a fascinating part of gastronomic evolution. Just a few years ago, research confirmed that our mouths contain taste buds for this relatively new savory taste (the other four “basic tastes” have been widespread for several thousand years), and many recipes in our history suddenly made sense. Umami was the reason the Romans loved garum, a fermented fish sauce that they used the way we use ketchup today. It's a key element of bone-warming and soul-warming gravy, meat juices and caramelized meats.


Escoffier, the legendary 19th-century French chef who invented bone broth, was convinced that the secret to his success was a savory fifth taste , but everyone was too busy devouring his food to pay attention to the chef's theories. It wasn't until the 21st century that most chefs were happy to see scientific confirmation of what they had always instinctively suspected. Massimo Bottura, whose restaurant in Modena is ranked fifth among the best in the world, first served Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) of five different ages, textures and temperatures on a plate in 1995. More recently, however, Bottura said the discovery that Parmesan is the most umami richingredient in Western cooking, broadened his understanding and approach to the dish. "Five textures, five temperatures and five levels of umami ," is how the famous chef expressed his vision.


How the name of the fifth taste appeared

Umami was variously translated from Japanese as "yummy". Amazing or pleasant spicy taste . The original name of the fifth taste  appeared in 1908 in the laboratory of Tokyo University chemist Kikune Ikeda. He noted this particular flavor in asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, but the most powerful umami was in dasa, a rich kombu (seaweed) broth widely used in Japanese cooking. The chemist paid attention to kombu and isolated glutamate, an amino acid that is the source of this piquant taste . Then he learned to isolate it from other products and patented the taste enhancer we all know monosodium glutamate.

What gives good glutamate

The quintessential example of umami taste , says Paul Breslin of Monell University, who was among the first scientists to demonstrate the existence of umami taste receptors , is a broth or soup: "Something that has been slowly cooked for a long time." Raw meat, he notes, does not give umami . You need to release the amino acid by cooking or "letting it sit until it loses a lot of water, maybe even a little mushy, like an expensive steak." Fermentation also releases umami - soy sauce, cheese, cured meats have this tastein full. In the plant world, mushrooms can boast a high content of glutamate, as well as children's favorite green peas, corn and sweet cherry tomatoes. It is also worth noting that breast milk is the most saturated in terms of glutamate content among the milk of mammals.

Magical taste attacks mathematics

Why is bolognese sauce with cheese on top or a cheeseburger with ketchup so delicious that you will lick your fingers? Because, as Laura Santini, author of one of the umami -based seasonings, says , when it comes to the fifth taste , 1+1=8 begins. That is, umami is usually derived from glutamates and a group of chemicals called ribonucleotides that occur naturally in many foods. When different ingredients that give umami are combined , they complement each other, and because of this, the dish tastes better than the sum of its parts separately. Pozayak, cooked beef, tomato and cheese create this magical taste. And that is why jamon and peas drive lovers of delicious food crazy. For the same reason, it is very difficult to give up eating chips.


Why we love umami (PREMIUM)

Since ancient times, people have loved sweet foods because they are a source of calories and energy, and have been wary of bitter foods to avoid poisons. A similar rule applies to umami , which is a protein marker that contains vital amino acids. This brings us to 2 interesting questions. First, why our innate penchant for umamiprefer ready-made or seasoned food? Breslin believes that cooking or preserving food is our primary method of detoxification. Part of the great digestive formula is not only the ability to process nutrients, but also to protect us from the unpleasant side effects of absorbing them. If we don't get enough food, we'll get through the day, but if we get poisoned, life can end for us right on the spot. Second, why are some fruits and vegetables that are low in protein so high in glutamate? In some cases, for example, with mushrooms, no explanation has yet been found. But everything is easier for sweet fruits. They have sugar, so we grab the fruit and scatter the seeds around. Perhaps the mixture of sugar and glutamate in some foods makes them more appealing and serves evolutionary purposes.

The power of good (PREMIUM)

Ingesting cheap, fatty, and completely useless flavor -enhanced food is completely out of our evolutionary aspirations, but some agree that glutamate can be used for good purposes. For example, Breslin says his motivation lies in finding ways to feed malnourished people. "What do we need? Something very tasty for children to eat, which is easy to make and which will be useful for them." Professor Margot Gosney of the British Geriatrics Society is also "looking at ways to increase the umami content of hospital food" to make it more appealing to older people without over-salting.

Many people, having first met the fifth taste , become obsessed with the search for ingredients and experiments with it. However, not everyone agrees that umami can be classified as one of the main tastes. Professor Barry Smith of the University of London's Center for the Study of Taste believes we need "neuroscience and Japaneseness" to be interested, while sweet and salty remain as clear as day. "Perhaps umami has nothing to do with other similar effects, and in laboratory studies we simply seek to consciously detect it." 

As European delicacies penetrate the life of our society (jamon, parmesan, etc.), we are looking for more and more sources of umami taste and find more and more favorite dishes from other peoples. No wonder it's so hard to wean our kids and ourselves off burgers and chips. The main thing is to know the reason, and then everyone decides for himself. 

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