Just as mashed potatoes coat your mouth like a warm blanket, many other foods provide your brain with the same experience courtesy of a natural compound called glutamate.
That protein exists in a number of foods such as aged cheeses, tomatoes, shitake mushrooms, soy sauce, and the list goes on. It creates a sensation called umami, which is often referred to as the fifth sense. The others being sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
By now the term “umami” has hit the masses, no longer relegated to chefs and fervent foodies. Most have experienced it at one time or another, but didn’t have a label for it. The best way to describe umami is a taste that made you say “wow” and left you craving more.
As a sense, umami doesn’t hit your palate as much as it hits your mind and your body to create a soul-warming sensation. How do you knock someone off their feet with umami? Create an umami bomb – something that’s loaded with different layers of umami, which creates an over-the-top flavor.
A Little History
Though umami seems like a more recent revelation, it has actually long been a natural component of foods. It was identified in 1908 by professor Kikunae Ikeda from Tokyo Imperial University who discovered the distinct savory taste common in tomatoes, cheese and meat was different from the four existing tastes.
While working with kombu, an edible seaweed traditionally used in Japanese cuisine, he identified glutamate – one of the most common amino acids in nature – as the compound responsible for umami. This led him to the study of glutamate salts – calcium, potassium, ammonium and magnesium glutamate – and eventually monosodium glutamate (MSG), the sodium salt of glutamic acid and a naturally occurring amino acid.
Creating an umami experience can be as simple as choosing foods already rich in quintessential umami – ripe tomatoes, prosciutto, shitake mushrooms, kombu, fish sauce, etc. Techniques like searing, roasting, fermenting, aging and curing will also enhance umami.
Debates aside, MSG is also extremely effective. It basically works as a flavor enhancer because it balances, blends and completes the total experience of other tastes.
It’s all about layering technique and rich ingredients to create an umami bomb and an unforgettable experience.