Umami is a flavour taste unfamiliar with most people. We have heard of salty, sweet, bitter and sour. Umami is a Japanese term that describes a “meaty” sensation on the tongue. It has also been called the 5th taste – savoury. Umami is a rough translation of the Japanese word for delicious.
There are several foods that naturally have a umami taste. The magnificent mushroom personifies umami. From the tiny button mushroom to the mighty Lion’s Mane. the earthiness of umami flavour bursts from the fungi. Raw, sautéed, grilled or slow cooked, mushrooms have that distinctive mouth feel and chewiness of “meaty”. For example, slices of Portobello mushroom are often used as veggie burgers. In my previous post I have taken the Lion’s Mane, slathered in a cashew butter then roasted like a prime rib. Truly, the umami mushroom is an excellent meat substitute.
Japanese cooks have been using umami flavour for a thousand years. According to Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking, in 1908 a Japanese chemist, Kikumae Ikeda, isolated monosodium glutamate in kombu seaweed. He named it umami. Western cooks were not convinced it was an actual taste – more of an enhancer. In 2001 biologist Charles Zuker, at the University of California was able to show that umami had specific taste receptors on the tongue.
What other foods have a umami flavour? Seafood, tomatoes, Marmite and oyster sauce gives us this savoury taste. However, what if you wanted to add a umami flavour in your cooking to a food that does not naturally have it? You can use MSG – monosodium glutamate.
After Ikeda’s discovery, a Japanese company started to market MSG as a seasoning. They extracted it from wheat gluten. It caught on in Asia and soon spread to Chinese food restaurants all over the world. It improved the taste of dishes but using a low-sodium ingredient. It was great for people with high blood pressure who had to keep their salt intake limited.
Then, what some called a racist movement, swept through the umami world – the Chinese restaurant syndrome. A letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 claimed that MSG was responsible for the ill health people were feeling after eating Chinese food in America. The story took off and many people refused to support Chinese restaurants from fear of being poisoned. Many restaurants then started advertising “No MSG” – signs you can still see today.
Later toxicology studies have shown MSG to be a harmless ingredient. The FDC in the States and CFIA in Canada have concluded that MSG is a safe ingredient to add to foods.
Certainly there is more to Asian cooking than MSG. Cooks have been perfecting combination on flavours for hundreds of years – establishing a strong culinary tradition. MSG is starting to make a comeback. Give it a consideration the next time you go spice shopping. I have a shaker of it next to the salt and pepper. It has become my go to shake since I developed high blood pressure as I noted in my DASH post.