Many diners often avoid monosodium glutamate. However, many commercial kitchens use MSG to impart something “extra” to the food that they serve: umami.
Umami, which was derived from the Japanese word umai meaning delicious, is often described as the savory, meaty taste that some types of food have. It is often considered as the fifth basic taste in addition to the four more popular ones: sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
When the taste buds in our tongue come into contact with glutamate, which is an amino acid that is naturally present in certain types of food, we detect umami. Glutamate is found in many familiar food items, such as tomatoes, mushrooms, anchovies, meat, poultry and seafood. Aged or fermented food items such as cheese also contain high levels of glutamate.
Certain cuisines seem to have recognized and embraced the importance of umami, whether consciously or not. Japanese cuisine especially incorporates umami-rich food items in most of their dishes. Kombu (kelp) such as wakame and nori are used on a daily basis, as are katsuobushi (dried bonito/skipjack tuna flakes), dashi broth (made from seaweed) and soy sauce.
Italian cuisine also depends on umami-rich ingredients as main staples, such as Roma tomatoes, portobello mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, and dried anchovies. In case you didn’t notice, I’ve just named some of the most popular toppings used to make pizza.
Many condiments also contain umami-rich ingredients like Thai fish sauce, American ketchup, British Worcestershire sauce, British Marmite and Australian Vegemite. They all add a profound taste of umami to dishes.
Amazingly enough, all of us are introduced to umami at a very early age, before birth, in our mother’s womb. Amniotic fluid contains glutamate, as does breast milk. Cow’s milk contains glutamate as well, although as very low levels. It is thus not that surprising that we find umami to be so desirable, so much so that food enhanced with MSG tastes better to us.
There is another reason why we like umami. In addition to the other basic tastes, umami actually plays a role in signaling which food items are good or bad for us. Sweetness indicates the presence of energy sources such as sugar and carbohydrates. Saltiness indicates the presence of minerals. Sourness indicates unripe fruit. Bitterness usually indicates the presence of toxic and dangerous substances.
Umami indicates that amino acids (protein) are present in the food, which are essential building blocks for our body, and again, highly desirable. Food items that are naturally rich in umami are actually good for our bodies and that is why we like them.
Umami is sometimes difficult to taste on its own, but when it is combined with other tastes, especially sweetness, the flavor of many dishes or food items can be greatly enhanced. When we add sweetness to umami-rich oysters, the end result tastes better.
Likewise, we can take advantage of ingredients naturally rich in umami to increase the flavor of our dishes.
For example, when we are boiling pasta or vegetables and add some kelp to the water, the flavor of the pasta and the vegetables will be drawn out more intensely. This concept is also used and recognized in both Chinese and Western cooking in the form of meat, fish or poultry stock; well-made stock makes all the difference in the world.
An interesting point to note is that wine contains high levels of glutamate; some types of wine are particularly more umami-rich than others. However, when we pair food items that are very umami-rich with wine, the umami taste present in the wine will pale in comparison, thus the wine may tend to taste bitter and astringent. In order to avoid this, we can pair umami-rich food with sweeter tasting wines.
Rosa Kusbiantoro is a regular culinary columnist for City Beat. She is a trained chef and discusses cuisine, particularly her passion for chocolate, on her blog, Chocolateschool.livejournal.com.