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Umami/Not Umami

Here's something I posted recently to my blog, but I'm wondering if other folks would have other examples...

A food story in the Saturday edition of The Wall Street Journal posed this interesting question: “Americans are taught from an early age that there are four basic tastes — sweet, salty, sour and bitter. But what describes the taste of chicken soup?”

As the article explains, the best way to describe it is “umami” (pronounced oo-MA-mee), the so-called “fifth taste.” Here’s how the Journal sums it up: “First identified by a Japanese scientist a century ago, umami has long been an obscure culinary concept. Hard to describe, it is usually defined as a meaty, savory, satisfying taste.”

The article goes on to talk abut the fact that the food industry is trying to cash in on umami by creating products that emphasize it. But, again, what is “it”?

In scientific terms, umami foods are often high in glutamate — “an amino acid and a building block of protein,” the Journal explains. (It’s the G in MSG, the flavor-enhancing ingredient commonly used in Chinese cooking.) In unscientific terms, foods ranging from Parmesan cheese to mushrooms are considered quintessential umami items. The Mushroom Council trade group has gone so far as to create a campaign called “Umami: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It,” offering “instructions in ‘building the U-bomb (Umami bomb)’ by sauteing mushrooms and adding them to grilled steak,” according to the Journal.

It seems to me that what umami is truly about is texture and sensation — “tongue-coating” as the Journal describes it — more than taste. Well, taste figures into things, but we’re talking foods that convey a certain fullness in the mouth. Again, the concept is hard to describe, but I’d definitely concur that it’s for real.

All this got me thinking of some examples of what qualifies as umami and what doesn’t. I’m not saying I’ve analyzed the glutamate content of the food items listed below, but I’d argue that the ones I’m claiming are umami are about more than mere taste. See if you agree and feel free to contribute some examples of umami/not umami of your own.

In the “something spicy” category…

Umami: Hot and sour soup

Sure, it’s got the peppery flavor, but isn’t hot and sour as much about the texture, that hard-to-describe thickness that never crosses the line into gloppiness?

Not umami: Jalapeno peppers

This is heat that’s direct — you feel it more on the tip of your tongue than your whole mouth. And keep in mind the crunchiness, too — to me, that’s not an umami texture.

In the “something sweet” category…

Umami: Banana pudding

Can you get more tongue-coating than this? Pudding in general is thick and rich, but banana pudding takes it to a whole other level of fullness.

Not umami: Cherry ices

Again, this is sweetness that’s more in the one-note category. You enjoy the taste, but there’s not much more to it than that.

In the “something starchy” category…

Umami: Focaccia

Bread with an added layer of oil, cheese, herbs, etc. is bread with an inherent umami quality — you don’t just eat it, you feel it.

Not umami: Rye toast

I love rye toast, but its taste, though certainly one-of-a-kind, isn’t quite so deep or complex. And the texture is crispy — again, not what I’d call a signature umami characteristic.

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  1. I don't think umami has a lot to do with texture. If I drank a cup of MSG and water, it would probably be an umami overload, but the mouthfeel probably wouldn't be anything special.

    Mouthful is an important component in overall deliciousness, but it's quite separate from umaminess.

    1. I've heard it described in Korea as "whole mouth experience" rather than a feel or texture. Where every part of the mouth gets involved. Like the OP said it's very hard to describe.

      1. The concept of umami isn't new. And it's definitely a taste and not a texture.

        1. I was actually about to post a "what is umami" question but I searched instead. Thanks for doing it for me. But your examples seem to be things with fat vs. things without, which might be an element of umami but might just be fat vs. no fat. I still don't get it.

          1. Banana pudding: not umami. Banana pudding with walnuts and caramelized sugar: umami.

            1. I don't buy it. For example, generally extremely ripe fruits have that umami tinge. (And are considered to be in the umami realm.) Think of a peach that within a few hours will be too ripe to eat. It's got something besides sweet and acid going on at that point. Yet the texture between a nicely ripened peach (as opposed to a rock-hard unripe one) and one right at the ripeness precipice isn't significantly different. You might find it slightly more slimy (for want of a better word) since the cell walls are breaking down and so forth, but is the mouthfeel soooo different? So cherry ice: no umami; extremely ripe cherries: some umami.

              1. The taste of umami has earthiness, roundness and fullness. It often acts as a grounding, sitting at the "bottom" of other tastes. Meat has it (the word 'beefy" refers to umami). It's what gives mushrooms their earthy, of-the-forest appeal. Cheese, legumes, tomatoes and loads of other foods have umami to a lesser degree.

                Doesn't have anything to do with texture.

                There's a physiological basis for umami. We have neurons in the taste center of our brain that perceive umami specifically, and others neurons specifically for the other tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

                2 Replies
                1. re: maria lorraine

                  There are specific taste receptors for umami and other amino acids, just as for the other four tastes.

                  http://www.hhmi.org/news/zuker3.html

                  Umami is essentially glutamates. That's why adding MSG to foods spikes their flavor. Same with many sauces such as Worcestershire, Vegemite, Maggi seasoning, XO sauce, soy sauce, marmite, dashi, miso, fish sauce, oyster sauce, and others. "Natural" foods high in umami include anchovies and other processed fishes, parmigiano, swiss-type, and blue cheeses, many mushrooms especially dried shitake, bacon and other smoked meats, and many others, particularly things that have been fermented to one degree or another. It's nothing new (the Romans had garum, similar to modern fish sauce, 2000+ years ago, and the Greeks before that), but it's getting into the mainstream consciousness now--even showing up in TV ads.

                  1. re: johnb

                    Yup. Could have been written by me. Thanks for the link to the study. I've read others.

                2. I agree with`some of the previous posters - umami is a specific taste (that of glutamates and glutamic acid). Your mouth has receptors for it just like it has specific receptors for sugar (sweet), hydrogen ions (sour), and alkali metal ions (salty). [Bitterness, to my knowledge, is the detection of thousands of different chemicals with no chemical common thread except perhaps a tendency to be poisonous low-ish levels.]

                  The confusing thing: flavor is not merely some combination of the five known tastes (there is also some evidence that we may have taste receptors for fat, but that's still speculative). Aroma makes up a large part of what we experience as flavor. The smell of foods as we exhale combines with data from the chemical receptors on our tongue (tastebuds) to form what we experience as flavor. The experience is further modified by mouthfeel, temperature, and even the sounds of your chewing/eating and your expectation of how the food is going to taste.

                  As complicated as this all is, umami is nonetheless the detection by receptors in your mouth of a very specific chemical. It's not a texture. Mouth-filling-ness is different and a combination of several factor: fattiness, mouthfeel, slow release of some aromas, and -yes- umami as well.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    Just like there is a genetic phenotype that determines an individual's ability or inability to taste bitterness, there are genetic phenotypes that determine perceptions of fat, creaminess, optimal sweetness, and many other factors found in food.

                    Taste buds are only a small part of our taste system, and their number means little in the larger scheme of things. We have neural relays for each of the five tastes that run from each of our taste buds to the brain, and it’s our brain’s taste centers – mainly, the rostral insula -- that determine the identity and intensity of tastes/flavors. As mentioned, we have dedicated neurons for each of the five tastes in our brain.

                    Our brains gather information about food from more than taste. Taste neurons interface with olfactory information in the orbitofrontal cortex. That's why a reduced ability to smell or a bad interface means a reduced ability to interpret taste information. The trigeminal, maxillary and mandibular nerves in our head carry information to the brain about a food’s temperature, texture and a great many other factors. Just like our neural relays, any one of these nerves may have diminished or enhanced signaling that will affect taste processing.

                    The ability of the brain to *learn* and become more adept at processing taste information and forming neural associations is one of the most striking things about the physiology of taste. A person who studies food or wine intently, or music or perfume or art intently, has enhanced processing of sensory information in their field. This is how palates become educated, and how a person with a normal number of taste buds can, with practice, become a hypertaster.

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        Yep, yep. Most of what we consist as taste are in fact smell. Fresh potatoes and fresh apples actually taste like alike, but have different smells. So really we should say "This salmon smell great"

                        Now, I don't think people get more sensitive by educating themselves. I think we simply know how to classify the sense better and able to communicate better, but we probably do not get more sensitive. For example, a fashion designer or a painter can classify and analyze millions of different colors and they can discuss the very minor difference, whereas I may have difficult to name two different kind of red. Neverthless, I do have the ability to distinguish the colors, I just cannot put a word to it.

                    1. I'm not sure this will help, but it was a striking example to me in culinary school back in the Dark Ages.

                      We had two identical bowls of chicken broth in front of us. To one, each student added a tiny sprinkle of MSG.
                      The difference in flavor was truly striking. That simple exercise identified the savoriness of glutamate more than
                      any other way I know to describe it. We also added salt to the plain broth so that the gain in flavor from
                      the MSG-laced broth could not merely be explained by salt.

                      1. If you want to know what umami tastes like, try sprinkling some MSG on your food, or just tasting it straight up. That's umami. :)