Monday, February 22, 2010

Taste No. 5

Preface: I have not thought about it much before, but since starting this blog and writing about my cooking I find that a lot of the dishes I cook contain umami.


It is generally acknowledged that our taste buds can only perceive four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In addition to these four basic tastes, umami has been identified as the fifth basic taste. Umami is a fundamental taste in Asian cuisines and has a long history in Asian cooking. Even though umami was discovered over a century ago in 1908 by Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, it has struggled for popular acceptance as a distinct taste by Western scientists. It was only recognized as a basic taste in 2000 when researchers at the University of Miami succeeded in proving that taste receptors for umami exist, enabling this fifth taste to gain general acceptance.

All other tastes come from a combination of these basic (or primary) tastes. Just like all colours are derived from the basic primary colours of red, green and blue.

The essence of great cooking is to create a balance when using ingredients in cooking dishes so that all of these basic tastes are in harmony.

Understanding the basic tastes enables you to taste your cooking and recognise what is needed, and make the necessary adjustments. I rarely ever follow a recipe to the dot, I use it as a guide and continually taste while I am cooking, and add ingredients/seasonings as I go to my desired tastes. When you cook a dish it generally never turns out exactly the same as the last time you cooked it. It’s kind of like seeing your favourite band, you have probably seen them live many times and they play the same songs but every show is different, it’s always a different experience.

The Basic Tastes

Bitterness is the most sensitive of the tastes in that we can recognize it even in small amounts. Bitterness balances sweetness, and can also play a vital role in cutting richness in a dish. Common bitter foods and beverages include coffee, unsweetened cocoa, beer and olives.


Saltiness is a taste produced primarily by the presence of sodium ions. Salt is an important flavouring, it is a taste enhancer and taste modifier. It strengthens the impression of aromas that accompany it, and it suppresses the sensation of bitterness.


Sourness is the taste that detects acidity. Examples of foods which exhibit sourness are lemons, vinegar and wines which have a sour tinge to its flavour. Adding sourness to a dish adds sparkle and brightness to a dish (eg: finishing off a dish with a squeeze of lemon). Balancing a dish’s acidity with other tastes is critical to making a dish delicious.

It takes the greatest quantity of a substance that is sweet (vs salty, sour or bitter) to register on our taste buds. Sweetness can add balance and roundness to savoury dishes, and bring out the flavour of other ingredients.


The term umami is Japanese which literally means ‘delicious’. Umami is described as a savoury or meaty ‘mouth filling’ taste, produced by glutamates which is found in amino acid rich foods such as fermented and aged foods (glutamate concentration increases as an ingredient ripens), in protein-heavy foods such as steak and in the additive monosodium glutamate aka MSG (this explains why foods treated with MSG often taste fuller or better). The discovery of umami lead to the chemical isolation of MSG and its commercial production and marketing as a flavour enhancer.

Umami is typically associated with glutamate but many ingredients chiefly owe their umami flavour to other compounds such as inosinate, guanylate and adenylate. The taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavours. Umami intensifies sweet and salty, and rounds out sour and bitter.

There are a number of foods that contain umami such as:
• cheeses like parmesan and blue cheese
• soy sauce
• fish sauce
• Worchestershire sauce
• soy beans
• vegemite
• seaweed
• sake
• mushrooms (especially shiitake)
• asparagus
• tomatoes
• human breast milk (!)
• beef
• cured and smoked meats (ham, bacon etc)
• fish and shellfish (particularly anchovies and tuna)
• green tea
• savoury herbs like rosemary and thyme

The glutamate taste sensation is most intense in combination with sodium ion as found in salt. This is one reason why tomatoes exhibit a stronger taste after adding salt.

Now that umami is gaining more popularity and influence in cooking, a company in Britain has somehow bottled it all up and just released a tube of umami paste for sale in supermarkets (!

The tube of umami is named ‘Taste No. 5’.

With so many umami rich ingredients out there, I think this umami paste is unnecessary. It would be much better to use and experiment with different umami rich ingredients in your cooking rather than use a paste. It might as well have been called ‘I can’t believe it’s not MSG’ considering that its objective is to enhance the flavour of dishes but it was named Taste No. 5 to apparently evoke the added allure of a high-class perfume (?!) Kind of like Chanel No. 5 I suppose.

The umami paste also has the potential to be overused in cooking like MSG is, with people thinking that the more they add the better their dishes will taste. This is incorrect, cooking is all about balance. Once you have added in the required amount of umami or MSG, adding any more does not make a difference and will instead have a negative effect. In economics, we call this the law of diminishing marginal utility. The law states that as a person increases their consumption of a product, there will be a decline in the marginal utility (satisfaction) that the person derives from consuming each additional unit of that product. For example, think about buffet restaurants. It’s ‘all you can eat’ but we all know that after a certain point, each additional plate of food will provide less utility (satisfaction) than the plate before it.

Umami plays an important role in making food taste delicious but there are also some other reasons why you should use more umami in your cooking -
• Foods that have umami are very delicious and satisfying and, as a result, we tend to eat more food.
• Umami is savoury and creates a sensation that chefs call mouth-feel. We get this mouth-feel sensation from eating fat. So if you use more umami in cooking, you can reduce the amount of fat that you use in your food and still get a great taste.
• Salt heightens flavours in dishes, especially in the presence of umami flavours. If you use a lot of umami in your cooking you don’t have to use as much salt.

Thus, umami = deliciousness + eating more food + reducing fat and salt intake.

On a side note.

While writing this I was googling some information. So what would one expect to find if they input the words ‘human tastes’ into the search box?... well I wanted to read more about and understand the human tastes – how do we taste, what do we taste, what types of tastes do we have etc.

The top searches returned for ‘human tastes’ were articles on What does human flesh taste like?, The Great Taste of Human Flesh…not exactly what I wanted or was expecting, kind of interesting but also kind of disturbing!

I guess now that I may have sparked your curiosity on this subject, you may be wondering ‘what do humans taste like?’ just in case you ever happen to be involved in a plane crash into snowy mountains somewhere in the middle of nowhere with no help in sight, stranded for days and the only way to survive may be to eat your fellow beings…

Articles on what humans taste have obtained information from experts in the area, from some of the most infamous citizens of our time!

Germany’s cannibal Armin Meiwes, in an interview from his prison cell, says - "The flesh tastes like pork, a little bit more bitter, stronger. It tastes quite good."

Karl Denke was a cannibal (also from Germany) who killed people, pickled their flesh and sold it on the black market as pork.

This certainly gives new meaning to all those ads on TV right now encouraging people to eat more pork. In the ad there is a chick catching up with all her girlfriends and telling them that she had ‘porked’ her boyfriend last night, meaning that she had cooked him pork (not eaten him of course!)

You can watch the ad here if you haven’t seen it yet

Get some pork on your fork!

1 comment:

  1. umami is my favourite taste! Will have to get one of those tubes of it!