What Even Is Umami Anyway?!

Mike wrote an article and it got a bit… geeky… 

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I’ve got love for umami cause it was born in the 80’s. But what is it? And is it worth your attention span? I’d argue yes. And I don’t have an attention span. Firstly, umami is a specific taste that is ‘received’ by taste receptors that sit on the taste buds on your tongue.

It’s the taste largely associated with what we’d call ‘savoury’ – burgers, lasagnas, cooked and fermented fish, shiitake mushrooms etc and sits alongside the other main tastes that are detected on the tongue – sweet, salt, bitter, sour, carbon dioxide, fat… WOAH SHUT YOUR FACE MIKE WHAT…?? Yep, there aren’t just 5 tastes, it’s a thing – not necessarily for now, but I’d encourage you to Google it.

Now you’ve bought into those first three paragraphs let me retract that first bit about umami being born in the 80’s…

It was officially recognised as a taste by the western world in 1985 but, because the world doesn’t revolve around the west (although sometimes it may seem, however planetarily impossible) umami was in fact scientifically discovered in 1907 in Japan.

To cut to the meat (wheeeyo) Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda broke down the scientific components of a kombu dashi dish and isolated GLUTAMATE (amongst other things) being largely responsible for the ‘savoury’ flavour he was tasting.

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I’m going to explain this in a way that Mike understands it. Glutamate is an amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks that make up proteins. Proteins are in a lot of foods for example meat. Let’s use beef as an e.g. When you cook beef, the heat reaction breaks down the proteins into their more easily absorbed amino acids – one being glutamate, which tastes of umami! The same happens when you cure and ferment foods. It’s a lot more complicated than that obviously but I’m trying my best.

Ok so umami is delicious but why? As well as being a taste it is also a taste enhancer, meaning it boosts the flavour of the other tastes, particularly salt. Why do you add salt to season meat? To enhance the flavour, but is it the salt that’s bringing out the flavour of your steak or your steak that’s bringing out the flavour of the salt?!? It’s a chicken and egg situation (which are both proteins btw) and I’m out of my depth here so I’m going to stop this stream of consciousness. However, this is great knowledge when cooking and trying new things.

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Finally, let’s talk MSG. Monosodium glutamate. It’s got a bad rep. It is a synthesised taste enhancer first put together by our mate Kikunae Ikeda from earlier. It’s got glutamate in it and sodium so it’s an amino acid and salt combo which is why it makes food taste great. This isn’t the issue – in itself, there’s nothing wrong with it. Kikunae actually envisioned it to be used to make food healthier! The problem is it’s widely used and associated with minging processed foods which are totally dredders for you. Nowadays if MSG is on a packet or ‘wheat protein’ as it’s sometimes called it’s usually surrounded by a load of butterz ingredients that are addictive and terrible. My advice would be, eat fresh foods and meats. They’ll be naturally high in glutamate regardless once you’ve cooked them. This way you’ll get your delicious umami hit without giving your body a battering.

All in all, it’s a fascinating subject that should be delved into a lot more. Hopefully, it’s got you going and you can read up and correct me when you’re an expert!

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