You may have heard the word touted by TV chefs or picked up on its soy sauce association, but there’s a lot more to umami than meets the eye. Joining the likes of salty, sweet, sour and bitter, this ‘fifth taste’ is the food world’s answer to je ne sais quoi. Rich, savoury and with a meaty intensity (even with meat isn’t involved), umami is the indiscernible element that makes a dish so good.
So where can you find it?
Umami exists in hundreds of foods, including cured meats, mushrooms, aged cheeses, dried fish and tomatoes. It’s the basis of great stocks, the secret to Thai salad and the reason you can’t have hot chips without a squirt of tomato sauce.
The discovery of umami is credited to Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda who, in 1908, conducted an experiment that led him to pinpoint the distinct and dominant flavour of dashi – a seaweed and bonito stock that forms the basis of many Japanese dishes. Ikeda found the single substance was glutamic acid, a type of amino acid present in foods and, for that matter, the biology of living creatures. Ikeda names this taste after the Japanese word for delicious (umami), and so umami slowly entered the culinary world’s consciousness. The term has been used in the English language since 1979 and adopted by chefs and food lovers globally.
While Ikeda coined the term and conducted this important experiment, humans have been enjoying umami long before it was a known concept. The ancient Romans and Greeks, for instance, were partial to a fermented fish sauce made from similar ingredients and techniques to that of a modern-day South-East Asian version. Although the exact recipe is yet to be uncovered, researchers believe this pungent condiment would have packed a salty, umami punch.
Show me umami
The molecular compounds in glutamic acid, known as glutamates, are completely unremarkable on their own. For glutamic acid (the tasty stuff, umami) to form, glutamate-rich foods must undergo some sort of cooking, dry-ageing, curing or fermentation first. These processes break down proteins and release the glutamates, allowing the “free compounds” to bind with taste receptors on your tongue. Once released, glutamates not only heighten tastes and aromas, they can ignite the neurons in the frontal cortex associated with flavour and pleasure.
The MSG mystery
While glutamic acid is glorified for giving the world umami, its crystalline cousin monosodium glutamate – better known as MSG – has a completely different status. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid and it occurs naturally in many foods, including potatoes, tomatoes and cheese. In its granular form, MSG is also used as a seasoning in the vein of salt.
The controversy surrounding MSG side-effects sprouted in 1968 when the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter by Robert Ho Man Kwok. In it, he described a series of physiological reactions experienced after eating at Chinese restaurants. Kwok speculated that MSG – a popular seasoning in such establishments – was the culprit. NEJM titled the letter ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’, instigating the widespread adoption of this term. MSG was blamed for a range of ailments including headaches, nausea, chest pain and shortness of breath. Restaurants, particularly those selling Asian cuisine, would brandish “No MSG” signs on windows and menus.
This public denouncement would be completely understandable if MSG was actually responsible for these supposed side-effects. But it’s not. Studies have been unable to find a consistent link between its consumption and the alleged symptoms. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as “generally recognised as safe”, noting that “although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions”.
Looking locally, the independent statutory agency Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) possesses a slightly differing view. The body concedes “a small number of people may experience a mild hypersensitivity-type reaction to large amounts of MSG when eaten in a single meal. Reactions vary from person to person but may include headaches, numbness/tingling, flushing, muscle tightness, and general weakness.”
And so the stigma lives on.
Maeve O'Meara is back in Food Safari Water 8pm, Wednesdays on SBS and then you can catch-up on all episodes via SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, videos and more.
Umami at home
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