A recent study confirmed the existence of the fifth taste receptor called umami. But what exactly is umami and how did Americans ever get along with just four tastes before it?
Fork in the Road sat down with Dr. Shintaro Yoshida, of the Umami Information Center (UIC), which has offices in Tokyo, London, and New York, and is dedicated to the study and promotion of umami.
So, what exactly is umami?
Umami is one of the five basic tastes alongside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It often presents itself in food together with other tastes such as salty or sour. The best way to describe it would be “savory.” Miso soup, Parmesan cheese, and tomatoes are examples of foods rich in umami.
Why has umami never been recognized until now in Western culture?
Probably for the following reasons: Because compared to the other four tastes, umami is difficult to identify and understand. It is a more subtle and complex taste. Second, because in Japanese cuisine, we make use of dashi, which is a soup stock made from seaweed and dried bonito or seaweed and shiitake mushrooms, in a wide variety of soups and dishes. All these ingredients are rich in umami, giving dashi a “pure umami” taste. But there is no such equivalent in Western cuisine, which means that there is less of an opportunity for Westerners to be exposed to and recognize “pure umami” in the foods that they eat.
What has propelled an interest in umami here in the US?
The umami cuisine of world-renowned chefs, such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael Anthony, and David Chang has certainly played a role in helping to boost the interest of Americans in umami. I would also like to believe, even though we opened up our North American office here in New York only last year, that the activities of the UIC — such as our Masterpiece Dining Event at the James Beard House — are also responsible.
A recent study proved the existence of umami. What did this entail?
[The] research identified taste receptors on the tongue that responded to umami. The study involved testing the existence of an independent and specific receptor for umami substances and identifying T1R1 and T1R3 as components of the receptor. This receptor in the taste buds was shown to respond to umami substances, and then this information was transmitted to the brain through a nerve response. Similar nerve responses occur when sweet, sour, salty, or bitter substances simulate specific receptors respectively. This is how our brains identify tastes.
Sounds complicated. What’s useful for the average person know about umami?
It has been shown that the three main components of umami — the amino acid glutamate and nucleotides inosinate and guanylate — stimulate the secretion of saliva, helping in the swallowing and digestion of food. The Japanese are famous for their longevity, and while it has not been proven, I sometimes wonder if the health benefits of umami, which include better digestion and faster satiety (which, in turn, can help prevent overeating), might have something to do with this.