Sweet. Sour. Bitter. Salty.
Chances are that you find it easy to identify four of the five tastes that the human tongue can process. In fact, you’ve probably been able to since you were a child.
Sweet? Cherries. Chocolate. A fresh cob of corn.
Sour? A tart lime. The aptly named sauerkraut. A splash of red wine vinegar. Bitter...how about a nice, peppery arugula? Raw kale. A single coffee bean.
And salty? An indulgent plate of french fries. A handful of pretzels. Bacon. Mmm...bacon.
But what, exactly, are the characteristics of the fifth? How do we describe the elusive umami?
It’s important to remember that umami, while still considered a relatively “new” term, is not a new invention; it’s simply a taste that was identified later than its more well-known and easily accessible counterparts. In fact, umami is perhaps the first taste that human beings actually are drawn to; studies have shown that breast milk contains about 20 times more umami than cow’s milk. Not bad for something we just seem to have started talking about yesterday.
But for mature palates, part of the mystery of umami has been the difficulty in finding umami in its purest form. And that’s where a man named Kikunae Ikeda comes in.
A chemist and professor at Tokyo Imperial University who plied his many trades in the early 1900s, Ikeda scientifically identified umami as prevalent in many traditional Japanese foods and garnishes - particularly, seaweed, soy sauce, and hearty, often noodle-filled, broths.
Ikeda linked the more familiar tastes to the chemicals that made them taste the way they do. For umami, that chemical was glutamate. In umami-rich foods, there was a prevalence of this particular amino acid.
Why Japan? This historically Buddhist country had long been populated by millions of practicing vegetarians. To compensate for the lack of meat, they created rich flavors with mushrooms, kelp, and stock for the natural craving of savory foods. The slow-cooked, masterfully blended culinary inventions evolved into something that approximated meat flavors, without actually having any animals whatsoever.
But the Far East hardly has a monopoly on the flavor; other examples of umami-rich food include truffles, cured meats, mushrooms, and one of the clearest examples of the taste - parmesan cheese. In the vegetable world, tomatoes, asparagus, and butternut squash share the earthiness that makes the taste so distinct, yet delicious. Each of these might also be described as rich, full-flavored, or savory. In fact, loosely translated from Japanese, umami actually means “pleasant savory taste.” Umami isn’t the most overpowering taste sensation. In fact, its power is perhaps in its subtlety - literally in this “pleasantness.”
Ironically, when it comes to proteins, perhaps no food best exemplifies umami than a well-marbled cut of steak, particularly wagyu beef...another dish intrinsically linked with Japan, but a more omnivorous generation of the country.
Wagyu Beef is bred specifically for one reason: flavor. To this end, these stocks of cattle, all originating from the same bloodline in Japan, are raised to be fat, voracious eaters, which are never given antibiotics. The result is a visible difference in each raw cut: a strikingly marbled meat from an abundance of monounsaturated fats. While these fats are what give steak a fulfilling, nearly buttery umami flavor, they also have an added benefit: these fats are actually considered good for you, as they have been shown to lower cholesterol levels. Some studies have shown 30% more of these fats in a proper cut of Wagyu beef. But you’re probably not eating a well-marbled steak for your health. You’re eating it because...well, look at it. It’s a well-marbled steak.
One more thing to keep in mind, for those of you (all of you) salivating right now: the older the animal, the more umami there is in each bite. Wagyu cattle, which is raised much longer before slaughter, has had time to develop a greater amount of these monosaturated fats, therefore developing such a complex taste and texture.
But umami is why you’ll keep coming back for that steak. Umami lingers, circulating among the taste buds, hitting every corner of the mouth, before transmitting signals to the pleasure receptors of the brain. It’s not your mouth to necessarily eat more, but rather telling you that what you’re eating is good - no different than when your eyes weren’t yet open but you knew that you needed more of your mother’s milk.
Ikeda was famous for saying that “Those who pay careful attention to their tastebuds will discover in the complex flavor of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter.”
And what does that leave? Simply put, everything else.
Therein lies the beauty of umami: available in the plumpest heirloom tomatoes, yet lacing the finest steaks in the world, the taste is, while still elusive for most, nonetheless ubiquitous. It’s only a matter of recognizing that tongue-coating, full-flavored sensation that could hardly be categorized or characterized in the simplest terms.