"}
Food

Umami

A powerful taste sensation

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

For millennia it was thought that there are only four basic tastes perceptible to humans: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Plato and Aristotle were onboard with this idea, as was their predecessor Democritus, who had contributed bitter to the short list of what are now called “taste qualities.”

It wasn’t until about 100 years ago that another taste, umami, was proposed for inclusion in 1909 by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Imperial University of Tokyo. Dr. Ikeda wrote, “I believe that there is at least one other additional taste which is quite distinct from the four tastes. It is the peculiar taste which we feel as `UMAI [meaning brothy, meaty or savory]’, arising from fish, meat and so forth. The taste is most characteristic of broth prepared from dried bonito and seaweed… I propose to call this taste `UMAMI’ for convenience.”

The aforementioned broth is called dashi, and the ingredient bonito that he named, aka bonito flakes, are shavings of dried, fermented, smoked tuna. Although Japanese chefs may not have understood the hows and whys, they knew that preparing fish this way and adding it to kelp broth made for a very satisfying bowl of soup, as well as a base for many other dishes.

Ikeda’s landmark paper, “New Seasonings,” details the process by which he identified and extracted the essence of umami from the savory broth. He concludes, “This study has discovered two facts: one is that the broth of seaweed contains glutamate and the other that glutamate causes the taste sensation `UMAMI.’”

The power of umami was already long understood by cooks the world over. But nonetheless, it wasn’t taken seriously as an official fifth taste quality until glutamate receptors were discovered on the human tongue, in 2000. This proved that humans are engineered to appreciate umami.

“The sequencing and functional expression of a human taste receptor for glutamate determined by these studies provides a first molecular basis for Ikeda’s pioneering work,” noted the Journal of Chemical Senses, in 2002.

Several more of Ikeda’s observations on umami have withstood the tests of time as well. He noted, for example, that the taste of umami is enhanced with salt, but muted with sugar. Ikeda also noted the distinction between glutamate that is part of a protein molecule, aka bound glutamate, and glutamate that is floating around unattached, known as free glutamic acid. The bound form of glutamate, as is found in muscle protein, isn’t available to the receptors. Thus, raw meat has very low levels of umami.

Some foods have naturally occurring high levels of free glutamic acid, and hence more umami taste. Parmesan cheese and anchovies have helped Italian food get its umami on, while over in France they do it with veal stock, in which flesh and bones are simmered long enough to disassemble the tightest proteins, thereby freeing maximum glutamate. In Southeast Asia, umami comes via fish sauce. In America, look no further than a charbroiled bacon cheeseburger with ketchup.

Dr. Ikeda also discussed the salt form of glutamate, which results when glutamic acid is bound to a positively charged metal, like, say, sodium. The sodium salt of glutamate, also known as monosodium glutamate, will eagerly break apart when it comes into contact with water, breaking off the sodium atom and yielding free glutamate. This readiness to dissociate imbues monosodium glutamate with its well-known powers of flavor enhancement.

In addition to being tasty, free glutamic acid is also a neurotransmitter. The cells of Huntington’s Disease sufferers can become over-stimulated by glutamic acid, making these people potentially sensitive to it. But in the general population, little scientific support has been found for the idea that MSG can cause headaches or other adverse reactions.

When glutamate receptors were found, it not only proved that umami is a basic taste, but was taken as evidence that a taste for glutamate offered some kind of evolutionary advantage—otherwise the receptor wouldn’t be there.

Many experts believe that, in humans, glutamate has become a signal for the general availability of amino acids. But paradoxically, the umami switch is not triggered by the most protein-dense food of all: meat. As the glutamate is bound up in muscle protein, it isn’t free to impart its umami deliciousness. Thus, a taste for umami would not have enticed our ancestors to gorge themselves on a fresh kill.

The most convenient and delicious way of releasing free glutamate from meat is to cook it. The processes of heating and browning meat make glutamate, and other amino acids, available to the body, including its glutamate receptors.

Cooking also makes the calories in food more accessible, which offered clear evolutionary advantages to our ancestors. Many scientists believe that cooking, and the extra calories it made available, is what led to a dramatic increase in the size and power of the human brain.

Perhaps a cultivated taste for glutamate helped seal the evolutionary deal between man and fire. From browned meat to umami-rich broth, fire has allowed the creation of some of the most savory, delicious foods we know. And we can thank our umami receptors for encouraging us to keep cooking.

SVCR-0603 Buffet_ 770x150 CW
More Food...
Eat Local Month
A gold medal standard

If eating local were an Olympic sport, Whatcom County would likely be in the running for a gold medal.

In fact, every September we enter an intense training period known as Eat Local Month. Competitors join Sustainable Connections to celebrate the bounty that comes from the area’s…

more »
Firehall Cafe
Of appetites and art

Lynden is bustling these days, and there are no shortage of great places for a light lunch. One often-overlooked eatery on the city’s Front Street is the Firehall Cafe, located in the Jansen Art Center.

The bright, open-plan, 30-seat restaurant opened in 2012 with the debut of the center,…

more »
Small Potatoes
The spuds of summer

Potatoes are often considered a fall crop, to be hoarded in the root cellar through the winter, roasted with other roots and perhaps a sprig of rosemary and served alongside other hearty fare. But summer? Now is the time for spinach and lettuce, for peas, herbs, summer squash and all the…

more »
Events
Today
Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

5Point Adventure Film Festival

10:00am|Downtown Bellingham

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

8:00pm|Cirque Lab

What's Next?

9:00am|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Wild Things

9:30am|Lake Padden

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Ferndale Farmers Market

1:00pm|Cherry Street

Barbecues and Beach Parties

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Ferndale Street Festival

6:00pm|Downtown Ferndale

Summer Concert Series Finale

6:00pm|Seafarers Park

Art Party

6:00pm|Tillie Lace Gallery

Farm Tunes

6:00pm|BelleWood Acres

Final Dancing on the Green

7:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

Wine and Music

7:00pm|Artifacts Cafe and Wine Bar

Final Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Historic Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham

A Little Night Music

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

Doubles

9:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Northwood Steak and Crab Swinomish 2016
Tomorrow
5Point Adventure Film Festival

10:00am|Downtown Bellingham

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

8:00pm|Cirque Lab

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Barbecues and Beach Parties

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Ferndale Street Festival

6:00pm|Downtown Ferndale

Final Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Historic Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham

A Little Night Music

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

Doubles

9:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Hall

Twin Sisters Farmers Market

9:00am|Nugent's Corner

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Mount Vernon Farmers Market

9:00am|Riverfront Plaza

Sedro Car Show

9:00am|United General Fitness Center

Sumas Writers Group

10:00am|Sumas Library

Discover Birch Bay Days

10:00am|Birch Bay Drive

Wondermud

10:00am|Bellingham BMX

Island Market

10:00am|Islander Grocery

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|Peace Portal Drive

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Improv for Kids

10:30am|Improv Playworks

Fidalgo Bay Day

11:00am|Fidalgo Bay Resort

A Swinging Weekend

12:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

Holly Street History Tour

1:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

This Old House

2:00pm|Point Roberts Community Center

Nooksack River Walk

3:00pm|Horseshoe Bend Trailhead

Downtown Throwdown

4:00pm|Public Market

Drinking for Dogs

4:00pm|Green Frog Acoustic Tavern

Scary Monster & the Super Creeps

5:00pm|Heart of Anacortes

Toys for Tots Benefit Concert

5:00pm|Eagle Haven Winery

Moonlight in Margaritaville

5:30pm|Maple Hall

An Evening with Ann Morris

7:30pm| Lummi Island Library

Circus on the Water

8:00pm|Lookout Arts Quarry and Boundary Bay Brewery

Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Sunday
Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

A Little Night Music

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

Discover Birch Bay Days

10:00am|Birch Bay Drive

A Swinging Weekend

12:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

Chuckanut Classic

6:30am|Boundary Bay Brewery

Veterans Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Post 1585

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Run to Fight Blindness

9:00am|Cascadia Eye

Marsh Mucking

10:00am|Tennant Lake Interpretive Center

Anacortes Open Streets

11:00am|Commercial Avenue

International Concert Series Finale

2:00pm|Peace Arch Provincial Park

Cirque Literary Journal Reading

3:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Chuckanut Writers Info Session

4:00pm|Village Books,

Sunday Night Fusion

7:00pm|Presence Studio

see our complete calendar »

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Northwood Steak and Crab 5 Point Film Festival Swinomish 2016 Andrew Subin Bellingham Farmer’s Market Village Books Artifacts Wine Bar