Umami - the taste you didn't know you have
While Umami was born with every human being, it was only recognised as such in 2002 in the Western World.
Together with "bitter", "sour", "sweet" and "salty', "umami" now fills up the gap of sensations you can identify while eating. But what is it exactly? It's the natural "savoury" taste that some foods had. From a scientific point of view, it's all the foods that contain glutamate. MSG had bad press in the past, but the truth is, it's just a natural flavouring coming from some ingredients. Not dangerous nor unhealthy. Also, It has been known to be connected to Chines food, but Glutamate is present in many ingredients that the whole world enjoys on a daily base. Do you want an example? Tomatoes are a Umami ingredient and contain glutamate. If you ask my daughter, Tomato ketchup should go on everything! Clearly her need of Umami is bigger than many other people out there. Same is for sardines, yeast (vegemite anyone?), fish sauce, shrimp paste, mushrooms, soy sauce, cured meats and many more.
From a Chef's perspective, this is an explanation about why Italian and Chinese food are appreciated all over the world.
What happens to you when you taste a dish with a strong Umami presence? Generally there is an increase of salivation, a sense of mouth fullness that lasts longer than with any other sense, only second to sweet. That's because the whole surface of the tongue is involved, differently from other tastes, where only one little section is involved. Last but not least, it's the most balanced of the of the taste. No food can be too Umami, while it can be too salty or bitter.
When I cook, I usually think of triads. Let me explain this. To me, the perfect dish, is the one you eat until the last element is gone from the plate. To achieve this, it usually has to follow some rules, that you might not be aware of, but are there all the times you really enjoy some foods. First triad I always keep in mind is about textures. The combination of three consistencies on the plate, it helps your mouth and brain not to get bored with what you are eating and gets you going back for more. Crunchy, creamy, liquidised are the popular and most recognisable ones. Think about a pie with gravy. You have them all. Same is for the desserts, even just a simple ice-cream, with the crunch of the cone or wafer, and the syrups that bring everything together. Second triad is taste. Again, a combination sour, salty, sweet or others is a guarantee of success. Last, is the one that not always is present in everyday dishes, is temperature. A combination of elements of different temperatures in one dish sparks your brain cells and makes it more interesting and appetising. This is the reason why the best desserts have a hot sauce and a cold and a frozen element. This is also why steaks come with salads. I always take into consideration another triad: colours. To me, a perfect dish has a minimum of 3 different recognisable colours on it, otherwise it looks unappetising like cantine food. A perfect plate of spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce has always a leaf of basil on top: white, red, green. Umami (tomato), sweet and sour. Firm (pasta), creamy (melted parmesan), liquidised (tomato sauce).
I hope I have managed to spark some interest and made you a bit more curious about your food. Now, what's your favourite dish? Can you identify a umami element in it? Is there any triad present? I'd love to hear about it!