Sweet, bitter, salty and sour are the four taste qualities upon which the human sense of taste is based, however a fifth taste long remained unknown and unnamed. Its discovery, made nearly a century ago, was due entirely to a single man, in 1908 Kikunae Ikeda, a professor of the Tokyo Imperial University found that glutamate was responsible for the palatability of the broth from kombu seaweed and noticed that the taste of kombu dashi it was distinct from sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, he called this umami. Umami translates as ‘savoury’ in Japanese.
People taste umami through taste receptors that typically respond to glutamate, which is widely present in meat broths and fermented products and commonly added to some foods in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG). Many foods that may be consumed daily are naturally rich in umami components such as mushrooms, tomatoes, shellfish, cured meats, celery, cheese, soy sauce, green tea and the list goes on, this may account also for the long-term formulation and popularity of ketchup. When you combine ingredients containing these different umami-giving compounds, they enhance one another so the dish packs more flavour points than the sum of its parts. This is why in a burger the cooked beef, tomato and cheese combined creates a combination to die for.
Fun fact: Humans first encounter with umami components is usually breast milk which contains roughly the same amount of umami as broths.
The fifth taste has a mild but lasting aftertaste associated with salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth, it also has its own taste receptors rather than arising out of a combination of the traditionally recognized four.
As far back as 3,000 years ago, Greeks and Romans were carefully boosting what we now know as the umami in their foods by using a condiment made from fermented fish sauce.
Auguste Escoffier, the legendary 19th-century French chef who invented most of the classic cooking techniques and the kitchen brigade, felt sure that a savoury fifth taste was the secret of his success, but everyone was too busy devouring his food to take much notice of his theories. Fast forward to the 21st century and many cooks are delighted to finally see proof of what they had instinctively known, Michelin star restaurants are always searching and developing new ways of enhancing the presence of umami in the culinary world.
The fact that our bodies are designed to recognize and enjoy umami tells us that foods with naturally occurring umami are good for us, however there is also Monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is a flavour enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe’’, but its use remains controversial.
By choosing foods that taste good and understanding how to make them taste even better we’re simply relying on the body’s basic wisdom to maintain a balanced diet and a healthy weight.