What on Earth is ‘Umami’?

It is a great joy to be able to eat and call it research. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a huge initial draw to food studies for me. But the truth is that I’m not a restaurant reviewer (though I’d kill for that gig) or even an instagram celebrity (working on it, but I don’t cook enough, or have it in me to spend all my leisure money on only restaurant experiences). The illuminating truth of the way I spend my time and money illustrates exactly why I want to study food: I like the way it brings people together, and highlights the truth of the human experience. Think you love your significant other? Wait until they burn dinner beyond recognition and ‘love’ means struggling through your hanger to eat it and be grateful for the effort. Alternatively, ‘love’ might be telling them it’s garbage and ordering pizza together to acknowledge your mutual defeat. To each their own, I guess. It’s the panoply of options and interpretations that draws me to food anyway. I like the way people gather around food, argue about food, lavish food on each other to show that they care, read about food, write about food, revel in eating food together or alone. That’s why it’s my topic of study, and my spare time passion. Food envelops my life. So naturally, I tend to drag anyone I’m with bodily into my obsession. Which is what I did recently with some friends and the idea of ‘umami’.

Umami is that extra oomph in our eating. It’s not sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Those are the flavours we grew up aware of. They’re easy to explain. Umami is something beyond that. Massimo Bottura describes parmesan as the “perfect umami” in the first episode of Chef’s Table; it’s the synthesis of the other flavours on our tongues. There is some of it in every culture. Dashi in Japanese food, and parmesan in Italian cuisine are just the tip of a meaty, savoury-sweet iceberg. So what’s a girl to do but try to understand this flavour? A reading I had done for a food history class this last semester in The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century explained some of the history of the flavour: most people know of the flavour only as it pertains to MSG, which was isolated as a chemical seasoning by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda. MSG has come to be an additive that many associate with Chinese takeaway restaurants and Asian cuisine on the whole. Even the word ‘umami’, with its Japanese origins appears to indicate some untranslatable nature, but all it is is the chemical basis for umami. Noodle Narratives also gave me the following:

So, following those instructions, we did exactly as the authors instructed. Shot glasses of solutions were readied. Everyone sat stoically at a table, and the four of us set out to find out exactly what umami is and what it does to other flavours. It was surprising, to say the least. The truth is, the solutions probably weren’t perfect. I used tap water, not distilled. I didn’t boil it before hand. Nonetheless, with the exception of umami, the flavours were obvious.

Sugar was…well, sweet. Almost eerily sweet. If you’ve never tasted grippe water, which babies get when they have stomach aches, then it’s unlikely you’ve had something so bizarrely plain in its sweetness. Desserts are sweet to be sure, but they have spices and other flavours mixed in. The flavours of ingredients we think pair well with sweet or highlight sweetness through the contrast. This was just sweet.

Sour was “like cheapskate’s lemonade” according to Friend #1. The sour solution gave the overall impression of a child’s summer lemonade stand on a budget. It gave me pause for a moment. Time enough to think about how often colour is a cue for us about what we are eating. A perfectly clear solution was in our glasses, and yet, it was lemonade that sprang to mind. I am inclined to think that to some extent, the feeling that something wasn’t right has a lot to do with the missing colour cues in our drinks.

Salty was unpleasant. Friend #2, who lived for a while in the Maritimes, was unfazed. For the rest of us, it was as though I had given everyone a little glass of the sea, and not in a cute tourist way. Salt has a bite to it that we forget about. It is the one of the four classic flavours that we are the most familiar with aside from sweet, occurring as it does in the sweat on our bodies, and we need it to survive. The fact is that salt is essential. It’s not short of the truth to call it an elemental flavour, occurring as it does in the form of crystals.

Bitter was the most roundly unpleasant of the five flavours. Only 1 of the 4 participants was prepared, knowing, as a chocolate aficionado would, that baking chocolate is nothing like the semi-sweet globs in baked goods. They are not at all the same product. For the rest of us, a sliver coating the mouth was too much akin to eating cardboard to be anywhere near pleasant.

Umami, I expected would taste a lot like mushrooms, which I love. Instead, there was a quality I couldn’t quite explain. It was earthy, to an extent, and maybe a little meaty (I know vegetarians would like me to think mushrooms work that way). It tasted somewhat like a broth someone might serve the sick, largely flavourless, but with something to it more than water. It was hard to explain, even to each other, and I defy anyone who thinks they know its character from cheese or Chinese food, to concoct the solution above and give me a convincing description.

After each solution alone, came the taste tests incorporating umami. Admittedly, it’s flawed science to have read what the conclusion is supposed to be before doing the experiment, but in the information age and given that the reading had been an assignment, curiosity won out over sound methodology and I tried it anyhow.

Sweet became saccharine. Sweet was almost too sweet with the addition of umami. Everything was heightened, intensified and odd. Isolated flavour is a truly bizarre experience. Though none of us wished to eat baking chocolate again, we did. My own opinion is that nothing much changed, and that what did change could have been attributable to simply having anything liquid to wash the ashy, dusty taste out of our mouths. Sour was still citrus-y, for lack of a better word, but hadn’t improved in quality. If anything, the entrepreneurial lemonade we’d conjured up in the first round of taste testing seemed to have been watered down. Finally, a salty drink. “Like being punched in the throat by Neptune himself” seemed an apt description from Friend #3 at the time, and I can’t think of one better now. Though I risk engraining confirmation bias here, it seems that as predicted, umami heightens the addictive sweet and salty tastes, and mutes or dampens the unpleasantness of bitter and sour.

If I am being perfectly honest, I still don’t really understand umami. I will spend my life tasting it and not really knowing what it means or is except as the inexplicable extra something in my meals. It isn’t mushrooms or meat or medicine. It affects the other flavours in my mouth, but is not a blank canvas itself. It’s complicated to explain, but I’m not even sure I would describe it as ‘complex’. So for me, much like my experiment, umami will simply remain an adventure, a passing taste expressed, enjoyed, then gone. Until my next piece of parmesan that is.

Originally published on my previous blog nextbite.wordpress.com under the same title on 26 May 2016.

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