Umami: the "Fifth Taste"
In the mid 1990s, scientists proved that the human tongue has taste receptors that can detect not only the four long-accepted main tastes — sweet, sour, salty, and bitter — but also a fifth taste: umami (the Japanese word for "delicious," pronounced oo-MA-mee). Umami gives food a rich, deep, satisfying taste and velvety "mouth feel."
Culinary Schools and Chefs Pursue Umami
Human beings are genetically programmed to love the umami taste. Now that scientists have shown how to achieve it — by using foods high in glutamates and ribonucleotides, such as meat, fish, dairy products and certain vegetables — chefs, culinary schools, and even food manufacturers are transforming their recipes and techniques. For example:
- Preparing Higher-Umami Snacks: Large food companies such as Nestle, Frito-Lay, and Campbell's are experimenting with ways to make their foods taste even better by increasing their umami.
- Chefs Use Umami Expertise to Wow Customers: Four-star NYC chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten serves what he calls "umami bombs" — umami-intense dishes such as Parmesan custard with white truffles. And chef Jonathan Pratt's Umami Cafe in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., combines at least three mega-umami foods in every dish.
- Culinary Schools Teach Umami-Enhancing Techniques: Culinary students are learning ways to reduce fat and salt in food without losing flavor — by increasing umami. Often, the solution is as simple as tossing a Parmesan cheese rind into a pot of soup, broiling or baking tomatoes, using a small amount of Worcestershire sauce (which contains anchovies) or other fish sauces, or even adding catsup. Techniques such as fermentation, slow-cooking, drying, aging and curing also increase the umami in food.
By learning how to intensify the deep, delicious, satisfying "fifth taste," chefs and culinary students have entered a bold new frontier of flavor.