It is hard to believe that humans spent 150,000 years on the planet before someone came up with a name for one of the five basic tastes, but it’s true.
For millennia we just used the terms sweet, sour, salty and bitter, knowing deep down that something was missing from the collection: something slightly savoury, something slightly salty, often something lurking in the background behind the other tastes. Much of the time it’s best recognised by its absence because without it many dishes don’t taste as pleasant or as well balanced as they should.
Well, thanks to seaweed and a Japanese scientist we do now have a word for that special fifth taste: umami.
In 1908 Professor Kikunae Ikeda from Tokyo Imperial University discovered and named the taste he got from the flavour of a soup made from a brown algae – a seaweed – called kombu.
Umami is Japanese for a ‘pleasant savoury taste’.
People in the west were a little slow to take up the new word, or indeed even admit a fifth taste actually existed. It wasn’t until 1985 that umami was officially recognised as a scientific term.
Umami triggers taste receptors on the buds on our tongues that recognise glutamate (one of the amino acids, the building blocks of proteins). Glutamates occur naturally in meat and vegetables such as fish, shellfish, mushrooms, spinach and celery. They even occur in green tea and some cheese products, as well as fish sauce and soy sauce.
Another group of chemicals, ribonucleotides, can also trigger an umami response in the taste receptors. When food is prepared that contains both ribonucleotides and glutamates, the umami response can be even more pleasurable, creating greater intensity – a kind of taste synergy.
Umami is a very subtle taste, and most people don’t easily recognise it. If you live in a typically western household with a typically western larder, then one of the foods that will give you an umami hit is parmesan cheese.
Australians have it luckier than most, because umami is one of the chief tastes ascribed to Vegemite, practically the country’s national foodstuff.
Worldwide, umami is perhaps most easily sampled in Asian food using fish sauce. In fact, the earliest record we have of people seeking umami as a taste sensation is in ancient Greece and Rome, where fermented fish sauces such as garum and liquamen were very popular. And, of course, you often taste it in food that includes seaweed, sometimes described by Dr Winberg as the ‘king of umami’.
Because umami is closer to salty in taste rather than sweet, sour or bitter, it can be used to help reduce the salt content of some foods without compromising the flavour.
For a taste that went officially unidentified and undescribed for 150,000 years, umami is ubiquitous. How ubiquitous? It forms an important part of the taste of breast milk, the first meal almost every one of us enjoys.
[From Coastal Chef, ed Claude Tinellis, Harbour Publishing House, 2014]