It’s a conspiracy. We have been taught a lie. There aren’t just four basic tastes – salt, sweet, sour and bitter. There is a fifth. A taste group so elusive so secretive that it was only discovered in 1908.
Umami – the fifth and final taste group. What is it? Why was it hidden for so long?
There is a good reason why umami has escaped detection for centuries. It is subtle. Not nearly as forceful or blatant like the other tastes. Its a tricky little beast. Hiding – then appearing just at the corner of your eyes..err..tongue… and then disappearing again.
Professor Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University, was sitting down for dinner with his family. The menu – dashi broth with konbu seaweed. A few sips in, something hit Ikeda. There was this taste that the broth had. Not exactly a flavour, something far more basic, but he just couldn’t put his finger on it. Just when he thought he found it, it would disappear. One thing was sure – it was the thing making the broth so very tasty!
This new culinary discovery consumed Ikeda. He eventually came up with a name for this new taste, using the Japanese word that means “a delicious taste”- Umami.
He described it as a very subtle taste – mild, with a very distinctive aftertaste that is very difficult to describe. It makes you salivate and leaves a tingling sensation at the back of the throat. It is that distinctive pungency all non veg items share. Umami is the basic taste of meat.
Now, while umami is meaty, but not everything umami is meat.
Mushrooms are a great example of veg umami. It simulates that same salivating reaction and has that distinctive pungency, so does Japanese seaweed like kombu and smoked tofu.
Ikeda made his discovery in 1908. He sent the scientific and culinary into a tizzy. It was after almost 80 years that Umami was officially recognized as a basic taste group.
Turns out that out of all our taste receptors on our tongue, the one for umami is the largest of them all. Talk about hiding in plain sight!