Friday 14 December 2007

Umami - the quintessential taste

"What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so."

Hamlet puts his finger on the fifth essence as the answer to the ultimate questions. So maybe unami, which is being touted as the fifth taste is the answer to the mysteries of flavour and in the mouth sensations.

This is making its way into mainstream food, with Nescafe and Doritos jumping in with both feet.

Here's an interesting section from Organic the brilliant digital marketing blog:

"It is coming to be accepted in the Western world that in addition to our four basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, that there is a fifth taste that constitutes “savory” or a feeling of full flavor. Umami, a concept originated in Japan, is used to describe the taste sensation we get when eating something like cheese, meat, broth, mushrooms, nuts, etc. This may already be familiar to some of you, but for those of you who haven’t heard this before, it looks like you might be hearing a lot more of it in the near future.

From your high end restaurants to your packaged foods companies (Doritos, Nestle), everyone is interested in increasing the umami in their products, creating an umami taste bomb. After all while consumers are scared of chemical sounding ingredients like MSG (an umami catalyst), who doesn’t love some sautéed mushrooms on their steak or a little parmesan cheese in their tomato soup. Yum!"

And here is a section from the WSJ article it was derived from:

"To understand the taste of umami, imagine a perfectly dressed Caesar salad, redolent of Parmesan cheese, minced anchovies and Worcestershire sauce; or slurping chicken soup; or biting into a slice of pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza. The savory taste of these foods, and the full, tongue-coating sensation they provide, is umami.

For years, Western chefs and food scientists debated whether umami was a true taste, as fundamental to the sensory system as sweet or sour. That changed in 2000 when scientists at the University of Miami published a study -- partly funded by Ajinomoto -- identifying receptors on the tongue with no purpose other than to recognize the presence of glutamate. Subsequent studies, some funded by the ingredient industry and others without industry funding, identified other umami receptors.

Umami's acceptance as the fifth taste has spurred everyone from high-end chefs to packaged-food makers to find ways of delivering the taste to foods. Because MSG's negative connotation has persisted in the West, that often means finding MSG substitutes. Mr. Vongerichten creates intense umami-tasting dishes, which he dubs umami "bombs," at his various restaurants. "The ultimate umami dish is expensive," he says, citing a $185 Parmesan custard with white truffles at his New York restaurant Jean Georges. His less pricey umami bombs include a $12 lunch dish of black bread with sea urchin.

Hiro Sone, chef and co-owner of Ame, a new-American restaurant in San Francisco, touts his "umami soy sauce," enhanced with kombu, a type of seaweed, and bonito flakes, which are pieces of dried fish. When added to cuttlefish and sea urchin, the umami sauce is "like an MSG bomb," Mr. Sone says, but without any MSG

The Mushroom Council, a trade group for the mushroom industry, has distributed a report to restaurants about how mushrooms contribute to umami. Titled "Umami: If You've Got It, Flaunt It," it offers instructions in "building the U-bomb," by sautéing mushrooms and adding them to grilled steak."

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