The Fifth Dimension
by Robin Rinaldi
For this experiment you need five things: a pinch of sugar, a little table salt, a lemon, a cup of good black coffee and some chicken bouillon. Start by putting the sugar in your mouth. You'll notice an instant sensation you recognize as "sweet" up on the tip of the tongue; you may even feel a tiny head rush. Then do the same with the salt. This registers intense and mineral-like, spreading to the sides of the tongue. For the the remaining three, you must hold your nose tightly to prevent the aromas from interfering with your taste perception. Bite into a wedge of lemon and feel how the whole mouth reacts against "sour." Next sip the coffee, whose steely "bitter" hardness lingers at the back of the palate. Now take a slow drink of bouillon. See what happens, how the whole tongue seems to light up? There's saltiness, yes, and a little sweetness, but there's something else. It leaves an almost warm, creamy trail as you swallow. You might call it "meaty" or "savory." But taste researchers, Japanese cooks and increasingly more American chefs call it "umami." And in the world of food preparation, it's something of a Holy Grail--that elusive depth of flavor diners crave, no matter what it's called.
"It's the basis and the ideal of restaurant food," says Justin Rambo-Garwood, executive sous chef at Bleu. "Escoffier wrote about it. It used to be called osmazone, a greek word meaning meat flavor or broth flavor. Then Maillard figured out how to cook things to get that serious brown on them: sear and deglaze. That's how you start almost every recipe in culinary school. They didn't call it umami, but it's what you're taught to go after."
The person who did call it umami was Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda, who in 1907 noticed that a popular seaweed broth displayed a strong taste that was neither sweet, salty, bitter or sour. From this broth Ikeda managed to extract crystals of glutamic acid or glutamate, an amino acid. It was the glutamate that caused the savory quality Ikeda named umami, and he wanted to use it as the basis for a seasoning. But to exist as a storable solid, glutamate had to be bound to something, and the most appropriate something turned out to be sodium. Thus monosodium glutamate, or MSG, was born as the captured essence of umami.
Wait a second. This exotic umami thing is just MSG--that nasty, headache-inducing stuff I don't want on my Chinese takeout? Well, not exactly. Umami is the taste of glutamate, and MSG is a glutamate deliver system. But glutamate exists naturally in many foods, including meat, fish (especially shellfish), tomatoes, mushrooms, peas, corn and human breastmilk. It's especially abundant in aged cheeses. It is, after all, simply an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein. In fact, Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center here in Philadephia, says, "If you serve Parmesan cheese, you're for sure getting more glutamate than you would in a Chinese restaurant." The thing is, the glutamate in food usually exists alongside other tastes, and it also has aspects of sweetness and saltiness to it, which has made the detection of umami difficult. Was it a luscious combination of existing flavors, or was it a separate taste in and of itself? In recent years the answer has begun to emerge as scientists find glutamate receptors on the tongue and upper palate. "The definitive proof's not in yet," says Beauchamp, "but it's looking as if there are multiple umami receptors. The exact molecular structure is still a little unclear." He says we now know as much about umami sensation as we do about the sour taste buds.
But food is an art as well as a science, and chefs still tend to think of umami as perfect balance. Pod's executive chef, Michael Schulson, who lived in Japan, "everything coming together. You're hitting all the parts of the tongue, and it keeps people coming back for more." When I ask him to give a direct English translation for umami, he turns to one of his Japanese cooks, who replies "delicious." But when I ask Schulson to list some of his dishes that have strong umami, he recites the same key ingredients the researchers at Monell have pinpointed: stir-fried lobster, wakame seaweed salad, shrimp dumplings. "It's a roundness and depth that sweeps across your tongue," says Rambo-Garwood. "You can taste it in soups." (Beauchamp says most subjects will identify the taste as "chicken broth." Rambo-Garwood says you can also taste it in any pan-seared meat. "That's what separates restaurants from home cooking; our stoves put out so much more heat that as you cook the muscle, it exudes liquid, and with it come these amino acids."
Just as sweet drives our taste for carbohydrates and salty our need to keep the body chemically balanced, and just as bitter and sour generally make us avoid toxic or spoiled foods, could umami embody our desire for protein? That's one theory, says Beauchamp, but it hasn't been proven. Meanwhile, umami can explain lots of food cravings in sensual terms alone--not just Asian food but steak, lobster, sushi, mushrooms, pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. And consider this almost mystical coincidence as described by Beauchamp: "If you dissolved yourself completely, broke your body down into its essential amino acids and stacked them all up, the most common one would be glutamate."
So not only are we what we eat, but we're incredibly delicious.
after reading this, i keyed in on the word osmazone (also listed as osmazome) and found the following entry from Brillat-Savarin's famous 1825 work, "The Physiology of Taste."
The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. Osmazome is the purely sapid protion of flesh soluble in cold water, and separated from the extractive portion which is only soluble in boiling water. Osmazome is the most meritorious ingredient in all good soups. This portion of the animal forms the red portion of flesh, and the solid parts of roasts. It gives game and venison its peculiar flavor. Osmazome is most abundant in grown animals which have red or black hair; it is scarcely found at all in the lamb, sucking pig, chicken, and the white meat of the largest fowls. For this reason true conoisseurs always prefer the second joint; instinct with them was the precursor of science.
Thus a knowledge of the existence of osmazome, cause so many cooks to be dismissed, who insisted on always throwing away the first bouillon made from meat. This made the reputation of the soupe des primes, and induced the canon Chevrier to invent his locked kettles. The Abbe Chevrier was the person who never would eat until Friday, lobsters that had not been cooked on the previous sunday, and every intervening day placed on the fire with the addition of fresh butter. To make use of this subject, though yet unknown, was introduced the maxim, that to make good bouillon the kettle should only smile. Osmazome, discovered after having been so long the delight of our fathers, may be compared to alcohol, which made whole generations drunk before it was simply exhibited by distillation.
then i remembered the James Bond film, "You Only Live Twice" starring Sean Connery.
I have a confession to make.
Actually, I'm a spy.
I know that.
I suppose you know that industrial secrets are big business? Well, I've stolen Osato's new process for making monosodium glutamate. And...Well it's worth $300,000.
We'll, I'll split it with you if you get me out of here
and back to Tokyo.
That's a nice offer.
How about it?
I'm afraid not.
She stands and removes the scalpel from his pocket.
Osato would kill me.
We could fly to Europe tomorrow, you and I.
She hesitates, then uses the scalpel to cut his ropes. He takes if from her hand and uses it to cut her dress straps as she kisses him.
Oh, the things I do for England.
i love Sean Connery's expression in the film poster. you can just tell he's thinking ,"What is that delicious, savory taste in my mouth?" and then, it dawns on him. OOOH MOMMY!!! (heh heh heh).
oh umami, i'm so happy to be your mama.