[U mami - seibun] - No English translation, umami-seibun is a savory
taste imparted by glutamate and ribonucleotides, including
inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods
including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products
The closest origin of the word itself is said to come from “uma’i” a Japanese word derived from a greater Zen term meaning “goodness”. It also stems from another Zen Buddhist word signifying oneness with God. In basic terms it has been labeled in English as “robust”, “delicious” and even sometimes…”yummy” (not a fan of that one at all!), which are all week interpretation at best [see the bible]. I myself have always said that it’s not when we consume the food; it’s when the food consumes us!
We all know we like to taste (on the yum yum level), we also know what foods we like, but what we don’t really know is why we like it! Not on the level of physical taste or even on the plane of mental reasoning, but on the components and chemical make-up of the ingredients themselves.
Umami has been given a lot of play as of late, but from what I’ve heard and seen; it’s been taken a bit lightly with too much surface or buzzword attention and not enough on the scientific side – there seems to be an umami bandwagon effect taking shape.
I’ve been a crazed saké fanatic since 1990; and in the sake world, umami properties and effects within a particular sake are critical part of judging the quality and richness of the sake. Sake is loaded with amino acids (sando), researchers from Akita Prefectural University found about twenty-three, from which only four are of major importance in determining a sakes umami level. As amino sando rises and falls, glutamate also tends to rise and fall, so reaching an ideal umami level is achieved by adjusting the amino sando levels. The most important factor they discovered from all of this is that it’s not the mass amounts of these 4 amino acids that increases the umami, but the levels at which these 4 are integrated and interact throughout the final product in conjunction with the milling of the rice koji production and both yeast aerobic and anaerobic processes. As a chef, I am constantly reading, cooking, tasting, reading, cooking and tasting some more; I am huge advocate of following nature’s guidelines when it comes to ingredients and the pairings of one ingredient with another. Nature is rarely wrong when it comes to placing things that will coincide with each other on the culinary front. Ingredients from one geographical area usually pair well with other ingredients from that same zone [see: Italy - tomatoes, basil, balsamic vinegar, Parmigianno]. Following that principal and path I have noticed that umami obviously is tied to the Japanese culture to a much more intricate and tighter degree. Not to say the umami isn’t found within other ethnic cuisines but as to say that Japanese cuisine was sub-consciously formed with umami in mind.
In today’s western society we basically observe four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Aristotle identified seven basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy, astringent and sandy. Ancient yogic principles identified eight different definitions of taste; the Chinese endorsed five. The Indian world has through all of antiquity believed that there are 13 taste sensations beyond sweet, salty, sour and bitter!
All of these were based on sheer observation and not of fact.
The great debate – even until this day is on whether umami is a flavour or a taste – confused; you should be! Taste is a single sensation received by the tongue and then taken to the brain where it is processed as a “yum”! It is physiological, completely a sensory, generated concept that is “in mouth” and chemical. Flavour on the other hand is more euphoric than that. It’s the combination of multiple sensations derived from multiple sensations occurring at the same time; which includes by the way – taste, texture and smell. It is both sensory and cognitive, and not quantifiable. Flavor is perceived in our brains when all five (or more) of our senses work together to form an impression of what is being taken in.
It wasn’t until I came across the works of a Japanese Doctor named Kikunae Ikeda from the Tokyo Imperial University that I really understood what umami is. In 1908 Dr. Ikeda discovered that “glutamate” was the main active ingredient in the umami sensation. He took Konbu seaweed, which the stock it made had been a cornerstone in Japanese cuisine for centuries and associated with great taste; and extracted the glutamate from it. It was long known that the flavours within konbu held the secret to great taste. It was Dr. Ikeda that coined the term “umami”. With the discovery of glutamate other ingredients within certain foods were noted for having umami properties. Namely “inosinate”, which is present in bonito flakes, and “guanylate” which is present in shiitake and matsutake stock were discovered. Oddly enough, bonito, matsutake and yuzu are considered the holy trinity in Japanese cuisine with konbu and miso not far behind.
Umami seibun (the tastiness factor) is identified with certain amino acids and nucleotides, namely MSG – ahh MSG! We know of you, we know what you stand for but really have no clue what you truly do. Monosodium Glutamate is the sodium salt of glutamic acid – hence glutamate, an amino acid present in all protein. It is formed through the fermentation process used in making beer, vinegar, soy products and yogurt. It comes from natural products such as molasses from sugar cane or sugar beets and food starches such as tapioca and cereal grains. It doesn’t stop there? There are two forms of Glutamate, which are known as “bound” form (part of a protein with other amino acids) and “free” form (plant and animal tissue). It is the free glutamate that gives the food umami. Foods with high levels of free glutamate are chosen for their enjoyable flavours and tastes. Foods incredibly high in free glutamate include nam pla, oyster sauce, soy sauce, anchovy paste and Bovril. MSG “let’s call it umami” can be added to savory foods to increase smoothness, richness and full flavour of a certain dish. With that being said remember that on its own MSG tastes like salt with only one-third the sodium.
The amount of MSG in foods can be counterproductive if using too much. After a certain point it will (like salt) destroy the flavour of a dish. Glutamate is also more powerful in foods that are raw or very ripe. The riper a cheese becomes, the more present the umami is in that cheese. All foods that are cured or fermented also have a higher glutamic “umami” index.
Glutamate is also produced within our own bodies and is crucial to proper metabolism. There are four pounds of natural occurring glutamate within our muscles, brain and organs. Mothers’ milk also contains large amount of free glutamate, which is needed by all infants to aid in the growth cycle.
For some time now there has been a lot of kafuffle over the safety of MSG. PLEASE NOTE that I do not support the addition of MSG into foods of any kind. With that said; it doesn’t scare me either. Lobbyist groups and soap-boxers have been trying to ban MSG for sometime now; saying that it causes, skin rashes, mood swings, etc. Let me say right now in confidence that those people are full of shit and base their opinions with no scientific proof. I was one of those people until I became educated on the subject. MSG has been confirmed totally safe by countless medical researchers, health organizations and agricultural and health comities. The UN, WHO, JECFA, SCF and FASEB (look it up the names are to long), have done countless scientific testing to find any sort of harmful properties within MSG to no avail. It has been deemed completely safe from all these organizations whether naturally occurring or by the addition of powder. Placebo studies with groups being told they are having MSG started to feel “ghost” symptoms, which were all found to be “psychosomatic”. The reverse was also found true within these groups.
It’s time to face it!
As a chef, glutamic acid and other umami properties can be your magic wand. By knowing how to understand how these components work is the key to building and layering flavour upon flavour by matching and overlapping these elements within the confines of structure of cuisines’ unwritten laws.
FOODS HIGH IN GLUTAMIC ACID
[See MSG and UMAMI]
Raw fish (oilier and fattier the better!)