Do you remember those pictures we used to see in school of tongues divided up into regions where the four flavours – sweet, sour, salt, and bitter – could be tasted? Well it turns out that that wasn’t the whole story because scientists have found a fifth taste, which they’ve dubbed umami, or “the delicious taste” in Japanese. It appeals to our innate need for protein-rich foods, and so the umami-detectors on our tongue detect flavours that are in the savoury, meaty, “brothy” range. Although the taste evokes meatiness, meat doesn’t have to be present to create umami. Shitake mushrooms, for instance, rate highly on the umami index, as do tomatoes, some seafood, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and eggs. Good cooks have instinctively always known this. The ancient Romans, for example, loved garum, a fermented fish sauce, and fermented barley sauces, or murri, or were popular in medieval Byzantine and Arab cuisines. The famous 19th century French chef Escoffier created meals that were particularly satisfying and delicious, because they contained all the tastes, even though he didn’t know the underlying science.
The secret behind umami is a substance called glutamate, and you have almost certainly met it in its chemical form as mono-sodium glutamate, or MSG. It’s in almost all processed foods though it won’t always be labelled as such. It has at least forty different monikers including: hydrolyzed vegetable protein, textured vegetable protein, and yeast extract, to name but a few. Manufacturers put it in because it makes otherwise unappetising food tasty. As one person put it, “It makes banana taste like banana – only more so.” If the lining of your intestines is perfectly healthy, then probably the body will excrete the added MSG without any problem. But many of us, especially we age, develop permeability in our gut walls, allowing the MSG to pass into the blood stream and provoke a toxic response in the body.
Far better, then, to go the natural route and so get our hit of umami through foods that contain it. Quite a few spices are high in umami, notably toasted cumin seeds, tamarind, and smoked paprika, as well as the herbs rosemary and thyme. Fermented foods such as: soy sauce, Thai fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, and miso, are also good sources with the added benefit of enhancing our good gut bacteria. In Malaysia we have our own sambal belachan, made of fermented fish and rich in umami. As mushrooms, particularly fungi porcini, contain umami, try grinding up some dried mushrooms and keeping them in a jar. Sprinkle the powder on almost any savoury dish and you’ll find the result magical. Add some tinned tomatoes or a generous dollop of tomato paste to almost any curry and you’ll enhance the flavour.
For more ideas on how to make your food naturally delicious and totally addictive, consider coming to one of the Spice Garden’s Cooking School classes. Seasoned cooks will let you in on the age-old secrets of creating umami – although we may have only recently known the taste by that name!