Cooking Lessons, Part 3: What the Fuck is "Umami"?

We all remember when we were little and elementary school teachers bullshited their way around a tongue map. Archaic science classes sustained that the tongue held 4 specific areas for tasting 4 specific flavors: sweet, salty, bitter and acidic.

Not only has this myth been busted, but a fifth flavor has been incorporated: Umami.

The word was coined in 1908 by japanese professor Kikinae Ikeda, when he discovered and patented Monosodium Glutamate.
L-glutamate: Agent of Deliciousness
It comes from the Japanese words Umai (good) and me (taste), and it conveys that savoryness that makes high-protein dishes so satisfying. It has been proposed that humans (and generally all omnivores) actively search for foods with a strong umami quality to ensure proper protein intake.

Kikinae Ikeda
Professor Ikeda found that high concentrations of L-glutamate in konbu seeaweed (Laminaria japoninca) made the broth (dashi) obtained from boiling it so satisfying. A pupil of his, Shintaro Kodama, found another compound, Inosinate, to be responsible for the umami taste in dried fish. And in 1957, Akira Kuninaka discovered that the guannosine monophosphate present in shitake mushrooms not only elicited an umami response in the tongue, but also potentiated the effect of L-Glutamate.

It took almost 100 years for umami to be incorporated in medical physiology books because there are no specific receptors for umami in the tongue. The argument is, it's not a "taste", but a "sensation". You can't taste "meatyness", you can feel it.

Still, in February 2010, Chaudhari N, et al found that modified subtypes of the glutamate receptors mGluR4, mGluR1 and taste receptor type 1 (T1R1 + T1R3) in the tongue can detect umami.

So what happens to your body when you increase the umami in a dish? well, you salivate more, flavors are more intense and the need for salt decreases. It has also been proposed that it increases protein intake in the intestine and the absorption of essential aminoacids.

Why the fuck should you care? Well, this is not just an asian thing. All cultures with a decent cuisine depend on umami in some way or another. Since the umami taste is elicited by foods high in L-glutamate and some ribonucleotides, it's not only found in meat, but in any fermented or aged food and many vegetables.

One example? Tomatoes and cheese. Eating tomatoes on their own is nice. Eating some aged cheese on its own is cool. But put parmessan on tomato sauce and BAM! Same goes for anchovies.

It also happens with soy sauce and mushrooms in a stir-fry, cured meats in a sandwich... and, as all mexican mothers know: substituting chicken buillion for salt in any dish.

So next time you read me typing umami, you'll know it's some seriously delicious shit I'm cooking, and you'll pay attention. There, I've planted a little more nerd in you.

  2. Yamaguchi S (1998). "Basic properties of umami and its effects on food flavor". Food Reviews International 14 (2&3): 139–176. doi:10.1080/87559129809541156.
  3. Uneyama H, Kawai M, Sekine-Hayakawa Y, Torii K (August 2009). "Contribution of umami taste substances in human salivation during meal". Journal of Medical Investigation 56 (supplement): 197–204. doi:10.2152/jmi.56.197PMID 20224181.
  4. Edmund Rolls (September 2009). "Functional neuroimaging of umami taste: what makes umami pleasant?". The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90 (supplement): 804S–813S.doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27462RPMID 19571217.
  5. Chaudhari N, Landin AM, Roper SD (2000). "A metabotropic glutamate receptor variant functions as a taste receptor". Nature Neuroscience 3 (2): 113–119. doi:10.1038/72053.PMID 10649565.
  6. Nelson G, Chandrashekar J, Hoon MA et al. (2002). "An amino-acid taste receptor". Nature 416(6877): 199–202. doi:10.1038/nature726PMID 11894099.
  7. San Gabriel A, Uneyama H, Yoshie S, Torii K (2005). "Cloning and characterization of a novel mGluR1 variant from vallate papillae that functions as a receptor for L-glutamate stimuli". Chem Senses 30 (Suppl): i25–i26. doi:10.1093/chemse/bjh095PMID 15738140.

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