Umami: The Mysterious History of the Elusive Fifth Flavour
By Duncan Tinkler on 30/07/2021
Come with me now on a journey through time and space, to the fifth dimension of flavour, Umami.
It’s the dawn of time. Our ancestor is examining the remains of her charred jungle home after narrowly escaping a devastating forest fire with her life. Just a little way from the edge of where the inferno had been, where the heat was less intense and blackened trees remain standing, she smells something. Something she has never smelled before. Something good. Something Yummy Delicious.
Following her nose she finds the remains of a small mammal. Something she had eaten often, but never like this. Previously she had torn the raw, tough and tasteless meat from the bone ravenously, pushing to the back of her mind the fact that this meal may be her last. Although the benefits of eating uncooked meat out weighed the risk, the danger of food poisoning and parasites were ever present.
She picks up the creature, it’s flesh falling away from the bone as she does so. She sniffs at it. She has never smelled anything anywhere near as good. It's still warm to the touch and the molten fat drips down her fingers. She salivates like she has never done in her life. She trepidatiously takes a small bite. Her senses go into overload. She furiously devours the high protein feast until it’s all gone. But what is this flavour that has overwhelmed her? Yummy Delicious.
A jump forward in time and we are in Ancient Rome. In a scene that is almost identical to one of today outside any sports stadia, queues are forming in the streets around the circus. These queues are for ‘taburna’ or street food vendors. Locals and tourists of all classes (save perhaps the slaves) are waiting in line for a tasty morsel to keep them going whilst spectating the games.
A favorite snack to buy is ‘la frittula’, a sandwich, served hot, made from offal. Something like a Hamburger or Hot Dog. And just as we might cover ours in ketchup, our Roman friends slather theirs in Garum, a sauce made from fermented fish, not dissimilar to one seen in 3rd century China, or Murri, a fermented barley sauce found in the medieval Byzentine empire. Yummy Delicious.
It’s now the 1890’s and we’re at the London Savoy Hotel. The head chef is the world renowned Auguste Escoffier and he is creating what is probably the best food in the world. He does this by delicately balancing the four known basic tastes; Bitter, Sour, Salty and Sweet, with another. One that he can’t name, or even satisfactorily describe and he certainly doesn’t understand the science behind, but one that he knows is universally adored. Yummy Delicousness.
The Japanese had been aware of Yummy Deliciousness for some time. It's especially prevalent in their more savory dishes, containing ingredients like beef brisket, shiitake mushrooms and a type of seaweed called Kombu.
In fact it was Kombu Dashi, a soup made from this kelp that helped Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University scientifically identify this new flavour in 1908. Noticing what made the soup so good was a flavour quite distinct from the four known basic tastes, Ikeda was able to isolate the glutamate that was responsible for it’s ‘pleasant savoury taste’ or ‘Yummy Deliciousness’, which in japanese translates to Umami.
By 1909 Ikeda had started production of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) as a flavour enhancer, and in 1913 his disciple, Shintaro Kodama discovered another form of Umami present in bonito (dried tuna) flakes and shitake mushrooms; ribonucleotides. It turned out that if these two naturally occurring metabolites are combined in a dish along with salt, the intense umami flavour is much greater than would be expected from each ingredient separately.
It wasn’t until the first Umami International Symposium in Hawaii, 1985 that the term umami was recognised scientifically and from then on it has slowly been popularised by modern chefs, for example when Heston Blumenthal attempted to improve aeroplane food in 2012.
It’s today and we're going our for dinner. We’ve chosen Chinese. We’re sitting at a table near the kitchen of Lucky House Chinese and Peking cuisine on the high-street. As the waitress barges through the swing doors we get a sneaky glimpse behind the scenes. We see our chef standing over a steaming pot of unnaturally bright orange sweet and sour sauce shoveling in a white crystalline powder. This is MSG. When the dish arrives it contains more mushroom then meat and you know that it is full of salt and sugar.
You take your first mouthful. It’s Yummy Delicious. You can’t help yourself, you inhale it. Devouring the lot in minutes like you haven’t eaten in months. No sooner than your chopsticks hit the bowl you start to feel hot and your heart races. This is Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, caused by excessive MSG. Actually it’s not. Scientifically there is no such thing as a syndrome caused by excessive MSG, however most of us do experience these symptoms.
Luckily, the symptoms are short lived and cause no permanent effects (nothing a cold bottle of Chang won’t cure). What isn’t so short lived is the fact that you have just taken on a shed load of salt and sugar that really isn’t good for you. And that’s the real problem with MSG. You can add it to the worst, most unhealthy food in the world and suddenly it’s Yummy Delicious. That’s why you will find it everywhere from ready meals and processed foods to snacks like crisps and even shop bought premixed seasonings.
The flip side of this coin is that it can be added to nutritious but otherwise bland food to encourage malnourished people, especially children and the elderly, to eat a more balanced and healthy diet. Adding small amounts of MSG to things like soups and stews will make it more palatable and has been shown to increase appetite and therefore nutritional intake.
In research for this blog I have done two experiments myself. The first was to eat a pot noodle. I hadn’t had one since my early twenties, and I was surprised at how Yummy Delicious it was (to be honest I cheated and got one of the newfangled posh ones). I was also surprised to see how relatively little sugar (just under a sugar cube) and salt (quarter of a teaspoon) had been added. With the dried veg and the soy protein it wasn’t as unhealthy as I had believed. What this showed me was that by adding a little MSG to a dish means that you can whack up the flavour without excessive salt and sugar.
So should we all be buying packets of MSG and adding it (sparingly) to all our food? This might not be a bad idea. It’s relatively inexpensive, 100g can be bought for under £2 and is available from asian supermarkets, or bought online. By adding it to nutritious, balanced foods we can increase flavour and keep salt and sugar levels low.
The problem is that apart from flavour, MSG adds very little nutritionally to our food. This leads me to my second experiment. A cheaper (free) and more nutritious alternative would be to go straight to the source. In the Kitchen table revolution we have been foraging for seaweed, drying it and using it to make salt (simply whizzing it up and mixing it 50:50 with good sea salt (see my video on how to make your own sea salt).
By seasoning food with this we are halving our salt intake and boosting not only flavour but the nutritional value of our food. Seaweed is packed with vitamins A, C, E and K and minerals like Zinc, Sodium, Calcium and Magnesium. A surprising bonus is that it doesn’t make your food taste like the sea. Our guide to Seaweed foraging is free to Kitchen Table Revolutionaries and available to download.
Since having a kitchen full of dried seaweed I have used it in making stock, sauces and gravies. I just chuck a handful in early on and allow it to simmer. The results have blown me away. I thought I was pretty good at gravy before, but just a little seaweed elevated it to astronomic levels.