West Eats East
Savory Taste and “Umami”
A savory taste is traditionally created by either dried Shiitake mushroom, Komb kelp sea-veggie, cured-dried Bonito flakes, dried sardines, dried scallops or their combinations, in Japan. In old days these dried goods were exported to China for their cuisine, particularly at Buddhism Zen temples, for an exchange of advanced, civilized, cultural goods and technology. During the last 20-30 years, Japanese food R&D along with manufacturers have been extensively promoting a theory of the good taste in a term of “Umami.” The term floats in our food academic conferences or trade shows, but it seems to not be fully recognized yet. As sushi or the Japanese traditional cuisine, Washoku, spreads in our market, we would encounter more often Umami, claimed as a key tasty character of the ethnic cuisine or foods. Here is the Umami theory in my interpretation in our food culture based on my visit to the Umami Information Center in Tokyo last June.
As agreed today, there are four basic taste sensations: sweet, salt, sour and bitter. If sweet, it is good for energy for our body. Milk is sweet lactose but not sucrose or glucose, which is good for a baby to suck for growth. Salt we need to sustain life because we have evolved from the sea with salty blood. Sour is a sign of spoilage or immaturity to avoid. If bitter, stop eating because poisonous things often taste bitter. In my flavor chemistry dogma, stimuli of these four senses are electronically transmitted through the nervous system along with the others of aroma, flavor, mouth-feel, and after-taste to the brain, where they are processed together with eating atmospheres and memories to determine instantly if savory or not. This savory taste can be also expressed by the words of delicious, tasty, palatable, appetizing, relishing, toothsome, luscious, flavorsome, zesty, gusto and so on depending on occasions. Such taste sensations may have evolved in a due development course of our human species, Homo sapiens, which enables to accommodate more stable food supply through selection, production and preparation of everything that can nourish us. Other animals may have a part or none except for filling empty stomachs instinctively with edible, available stuffs.
In this Umami theory, the fifth taste sense is claimed to exist on the tongue in addition to the four. It perceives an agreeable taste sensation, which is transmitted along with others to the brain where the same sensory evaluation process takes place for judging the overall taste of savory or deliciousness. This fifth taste sensation is defined as Umami. However, Umami is not savory taste itself, the theory says. It may be asserted as a key stimulus to induce, coordinate and determine savory or deliciousness in the brain, I interpret. The term “Umami” is adopted for this particular first note because of no appropriate word available in our flavor vocabulary. Though, this term evokes some confusion because of its synonym in Japanese and also not the widely recognized nature.
The Umami theory was born in the land where many things were preferred to be elaborated and when the western civilization and culture were flowing in at the turn of the last century. The most similar idea to it is “Osmazome” by Brillant-Savarin The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillant-Sarivan, 1826, Translated & edited by M.F.K. Fisher, Vintage Books, NY 2011. Osmazome is the matter preeminently from red meat, soluble in cold water, while Umami comes from omnivorous sources. The substances to provide Umaimi are some amino acids in a sodium or potassium salt form like glutamate, as well as nucleotides like inosinate or guanylate. This fifth taste sensation may contribute to satisfying the desire for intake of the constituent blocks of our body building or maintenance component, protein. Upon the tongue, these substances are said to spread over the entire tongue surface, linger for some duration and secrete more saliva, sending a signal of the Umami sensation to the brain. Since Osmazome also consists of some these compounds, both theories may lie on the similar basis except for the different reacting sites: Umami on the tongue, Osmazome in the brain. The foods which contain Umami or Osmazome substances are both perceived as savory or delicious eventually.
Edible matter is composed of naturally occurring chemical components. Many food and beverages which contain Umami substances, naturally existing or added in preparation, visible or invisible on the labels, have been sold and consumed all over the world. The Umami substances have threshold values which are the lowest contents to sense as Umami. At the same time any food component must be less than excessive or out-of-balance to avoid unpleasant, unsafe consequences. This theory needs to be educated to us in our language. As science advances, an old concept could be up-dated or renovated accordingly. For more of the theory, visit www.umamiinfo.com.