In elementary school we all learn about the basic flavors our tongue can taste: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Recently we have learned about another flavor called umami. This flavor has been translated from Japanese as a yummy savory taste. In Western food, Parmesan cheese is the most umami ingredient in normal usage.
The flavor is particularly strong in stocks and broths. The amino acids that create this flavor have to be released by some sort of cooking, molding or fermentation process. In 1908, chemist Kikunae Ikeda tried to replicate a traditional Japanese soup. In doing so, he was able to isolate the substance that creates this flavor: Glutamate, an amino acid. He also gave it the name “umami,” which is most simply translated as “delicious.” One of the salts of glutamate has been used to create the flavor enhancer called monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG.
The glutamate works in conjunction with ribonucleotides that are also naturally present in foods. This is why certain combinations of foods, such as cooked beef, tomato, and cheese, are so much more delicious than their individual parts. Aside from cooked meats and cheeses, products like soy sauce are high in glutamate. So are mushrooms, sweet corn, and cherry tomatoes. It’s part of the reason why children prefer these foods.
We crave sweetness for calories and energy. Rejecting bitter foods protects us from poisons. Umami tells us we are eating protein. We prefer cooked or preserved food because it detoxifies the food and protects us from illness. MSG has been created to give us this taste, but it is a manufactured flavor. While the debate over whether MSG is a harmful food additive continues to rage on, it is safe to say that ingesting the natural forms of flavors will be better and easier for the body to process.
Whatever the source, human beings naturally crave umami flavors, and each of the world’s cultures has its own ways of adding it to their cuisine.