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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.