Umami is one of the hottest and yet also one of the most confusing culinary trends to emerge in recent years. It has been called the “fifth taste” despite the fact that it has, unlike salt, sweet, bitter or sour, no pronounced discernaible flavor.
Adding to the confusion is the question: Who discovered/invented/created umami and why is it so important now?
To answer these questions and clarify this culinary confusion, it is necessary to step back in time to 1793. The escalating violence of the French Revolution forced a young lawyer, Jean-Athelme Brillat-Savarin to flee to America.
While in America he met and compared culinary notes with Thomas Jefferson, the young nation’s first true gourmet. Together they agreed that something special occurred when certain ingredients were combined and then prepared in certain ways. But what that ‘certain something’ was exactly, they could not say, yet there it was, whether the cuisine was elegant French or rustic American.
Years later, after returning to France and becoming a famous judge and noted gourmet himself, Savarin would write about this culinary mystery - a ghost flavor - in his culinary masterpiece, The Physiology of Taste.
There the matter rested until another inquiring person, Georges-Auguste Escoffier, took up the quest to define the ‘undefinable.’ Known as “the king of chefs and the chef to kings”, Escoffier would also write a book, entitled Le Guide Culinare. In it he would point to France’s five famed “mother sauces”, especially those containing veal broth, as a way to create that “certain something”.
To understand exactly what both Savarin and Escoffier had pondered we have to move from France to Japan. The year is 1907. A young chemist, named Kikunae Ikeda, is eating dinner with his family.
When he asks his children what flavor made their miso soup so delicious they (and he) could not name the exact ingredient – just as Savarin and Escoffier could not, BUT there it was never the less. As a scientist Ikeda could not accept that something was “undefinable”.
Years of research would follow with seemingly endless experiments until he discovered the answer – GLUTAMATE! When certain foods that contain natural glutamate, such as tomatoes and Parmesan cheese, are combined they chemically react and enhance, brighten, lift the flavor.
To clearly define this new effect, Ikeda created a new word – Umami, meaning in Japanese “the essential taste of deliciousness”. Delicious yes, but why include the word “essential”?
Over a century ago Ikeda was aware that a good diet is vital to a healthy life. Today the American diet is plagued with unhealthy fast, snack and over processed foods - enhanced, not by umami, but with an endless array of chemicals and artificial additives to make their taste addictive through false flavors.
A knowledge of umami provides a way chefs (and companies) can remove those harmful ingredients and replace them with the healthy natural “deliciousness” of umami, thereby breaking the chain of unhealthy junk food addiction.
Now that’s a chance worth making!