REPORT 'New Frontiers of Taste' Vol. 2

June 2005

  • - Stefan Gates

    Getting to Grips with Umami

    "I usually love quirky ideas about food," said Stefan Gates, food writer and self-confessed 'gastronaut', as he began his talk at the 'New Frontiers of Taste' Event held in Cheltenham, UK, on 9th June 2005 (click here to read an overview of this event), "so it annoys me to admit that amongst this array of umami-loving panelists, I'm a bit of a sceptic." Stefan went on to explain, in his own inimitable style, why he wasn't entirely convinced that umami is a fifth basic taste.

    Is umami really a fifth taste?

    Speaking as he was straight after Professor Edmund Rolls has given a detailed explanation of how umami, in the form of glutamate, affects the body, Stefan was quick to point out that he was not doubting the flavour-enhancing effects of glutamate itself. His concern was that umami might not exist as a separate, distinct taste.

    One problem he outlined straight away was that the term umami itself is not readily understood by many people in the UK or other non-Japanese countries. He felt that attempts at translation up until now have also been unsatisfactory, with terms such as deliciousness and savouriness not really providing an inspiring vision of a new taste. "I find it hard to believe," he explained, "that a language as rich as English can't come up with a clear word to describe something as explosively sensual and important as a fifth taste."

    Umami overload!

    It was not only the terminology that gave Stefan cause for concern. He recalled an experiment he had conducted whilst in Japan, in an attempt to experience umami for himself. Visiting Tokyo's world famous Tsukiji Fish market, he bought two pieces of "ferociously" expensive blue-fin tuna, which as well as costing around £100 a kilo, is also rich in umami. One piece he left as it was, and the other he flavoured with every umami seasoning he could think of, including kombu seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, bonito flakes, mirin, sake and miso.

    On tasting the two pieces of tuna, he found that the seasoned fish did not taste amazingly better than the unseasoned. The umami taste was enhanced, but not altered to any great degree. Could umami therefore be seen as a truly distinct taste?

    Fellow panelist Ichiro Kubota, head chef of the Umu restaurant in London, later pointed out that the reason Stefan's experiment was not successful was because harnessing the true effect of umami depended on a balance of flavours, as opposed to just adding lots and lots of umami flavours together. He likened using umami in cooking to wearing a coat - when you are cold (or the dish is bland), you put on a coat, but if you are warm (or the dish is adequately flavoursome), there is no need to put on a coat. Although he did not say so, Ichiro may have felt that Stefan's addition of a host of umami ingredients to the umami-rich tuna was like wearing thermal underwear and a winter coat in the middle of summer!

    Food myths and misconceptions

    One area of gastronomy which Stefan finds endlessly fascinating is the plethora of myths and misconceptions which build up around food, and he shared with the Cheltenham audience the results of some research he has been carrying out into the culinary foibles, predelictions and predjudices of the British people. Although he did not say so explicitly, he may have been suggesting that the concept of umami was another food fad or misconception.

    Some of the questions he put to Britons in his survey included what foods made their urine smell (definitely asparagus), what foods made them break wind (beans were the top answer), and which meal was most likely to result in a romantic interlude (one involving alcohol was far and away the most popular suggestion). Other comments made by the public included, 'apples make my legs itch' and 'glace cherries dramatically change my metabolic rate'. Amusing though these anecdotes were, however, Stefan used them to underline a serious point about how we relate to food nowadays.

    He pointed out that 20% of the UK population claim to have some kind of food allergy, when in fact, according to the British Nutritional Foundation only 1.4% of them do, and he suggested that the reason we imagine all these non-existant allergies is "down to a natural human desire for sympathy."

    Umami or... what?

    Towards the end of his talk, Stefan returned to his dissatisfaction with umami as a term to describe the fifth taste. He wanted to propose that a certain brand of corn snack may be able to come to the rescue by lending its name to the taste. Stefan proposed that "Wotsits ARE the epitome of umami, with their MSG (Monosodium Glutamate), their cheese flavouring and their sodium hit." He therefore suggested 'wotsitiness' as an alternative term for umami.

    While some in the audience may have been forgiven for not taking this suggestion compltetely seriously, it did serve to highlight Stefan's point that umami may become more widely understood if it has a name which people can instantly resonate and identify with.

    When the audience at the event were asked to vote either for 'wotsitiness' or umami, the result was extremely close, although it did appear that a majority preferred Stefan's suggestion. At the end of the event, Stefan was asked if the talks by the other panelists had made him any less sceptical about the existence of a fifth taste. He said that although he was not convinced about umami being a distinct taste, he conceded that, "when I tasted the cucumber seasoned with bonito flakes and ponzu soy sauce [provided by Ichiro Kubota] I did feel as though I was tasting something ... I would like to be convinced."

    We will be bringing you details of what these other speakers had to say in the following months, so be sure to subscribe to our Umami e-newsletter to keep up to date with all the latest articles on the website. (Subscribe to our e-newsletter)