Friday, 13 May 2016

All about umami

You might have heard about salt, sugar, bitter and sweet as the four tastes when you were at school, in fact there are five and the fifth is "umami".  Umami means delicious taste in Japanese but is generally translated as "savoury". 

Sticky soy dressing
You might not think that "savoury" is a distinct taste and it is difficult to explain to people, especially when testing peoples capabilities to taste for it.  

There are a few molecules which are responsible for this savoury taste, but glutamate is the one most discussed when it comes to umami.  You may have heard of mono sodium glutamate or MSG?  AH!  I hear panicked readers!  Nasty chemical stuff!  Well glutamic acid is (as it sounds) an amino acid which occurs widely in nature.  Naturally this acid sometimes loses one or two H+ ions and becomes the salt of that glutamic acid, i.e. glutamate.  

I don't tend to cook with MSG nowadays as I'd rather let the naturally occurring glutamates sing through but if you have ever added a pinch of MSG to frying mushrooms, you will absolutely realise what I mean when I say it makes food taste meatier and more savoury.

In any case, I'm not here to defend or encourage use of additives but what I would like to share is a few natural sources of glutamate you might not be aware of and this is why eating foods with them in are so utterly irresistible.

Parmesan cheese (and other aged cheeses)

Yeast spreads like marmite

There have been a lot of articles on the internet saying these foods should be avoided as they are a source of natural MSG like compounds.  I'm no expert but I've not been able to find any evidence that there is any harm in eating them and, in fact, many of them form part of a healthy diet.  Both far east and Mediterranean diets are rich in umami flavours and are seen to be some of the healthiest diets in the world.

I say, embrace the umami because more flavour in your food makes you less likely to strive for other flavours to fill the void like sugar, salt or the coating mouth feel of fat.  That's the great thing about umami, they're not generally foods you would have no their own but their presence of a small grating of parmesan, a dash of fish sauce lifts and elevates a dish from mediocrity to deliciousness! 

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