What is Umami?

Sweet, sour, salty, bitter . . . umami?  Though little known in our culture, there is a fifth taste detectable by receptors in our tongues.  The Chinese call it xiānwèi.  English equivalents might be “savory,” “rich,” or “hearty.”  The officially recognized term, coined by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University around 1908 is “umami.”

Umami flavor is caused by glutamic acid, an amino acid.  Dr. Ikeda isolated glutamic acid from the seaweed kombu, popular in Japanese cuisine for thickening and flavoring broth.  MSG is a popular food additive that imparts umami flavor, making foods taste richer and more delicious.  Glutamic acid occurs naturally in meats, fish, tomatoes, and dairy products.  Parmesan cheese really packs an umami punch, as does Vietnamese fish sauce.

Umami tastes stimulate neurotransmitters, including feel-good seratonin, and generate a satiety response.  So not only does umami make for a pleasurable meal, but it helps to create a feeling of satisfaction, signalling that you can stop eating.

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~ by nolashaolin on January 30, 2008.

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