A taste of Umami - with a Polish flavour!

May 2006

'Old Town' Warsaw

  • Old Fown warsaw - UMAMI Infomation Center

    Report: Umami Symposium at the Future of Food Engineering Conference, Warsaw. 26-28 April 2006

    Always willing to travel the world in pursuit of new perspectives on umami, the UIC Website Team journeyed to Warsaw to attend a symposium on the fifth taste and sample some umami rich Polish delicacies!

    The Future of Food Engineering was an international conference held in Warsaw, attended by over 200 food scientists and professionals from around the world, covering a myriad of mind-blowing topics, ranging from Developing Smooth and Creamy Date Spread, through to Replicating Steaming Conditions During Oat Flaking (!). One of the highlights was a symposium detailing the latest research on how the power of umami can be harnessed to enhance the palatability of food, and even in some cases quality of life.

    Poland a natural home of umami

    Warsaw was in many ways a very appropriate setting for such a symposium, because traditional Polish cuisine includes a number of delicious dishes that make full use of umami. So while other delegates took a sightseeing tour of the city, taking in the splendour of the ' Old Town ', which is in fact an exact replica built after World War II, the UIC Team headed off to a traditional restaurant to experience Polish-style umami for ourselves.

    i) Zurek

    One of the most commonly found examples of umami is the immensely popular soup, zurek, which is made using fermented rye flour, and generally includes Polish style sausage and egg. As one of the speakers at the symposium, Dr. Nina Barylko-Pikielna of Warsaw Agricultural University, explained, umami substances are generally more present in fermented foods, because "in fermentation there are many changes of protein into peptides (amino acids), and especially glutamate."

    With zurek , she went on, "rye flour is mixed with water, and lactic fermentation takes place, and within three days you get this nice 'sourish' flavour that is the basis for zurek ." She also pointed out that in days gone by in Poland, this process was carried out simply by leaving the mixture of flour and water outside, but this does not work in some other parts of the world, for example California, where the Professor lived for some years. Which perhaps goes to show that Poland really is the natural home of umami!

    ii) Bigos

    Another Polish favourite that is big on umami is bigos, which is a dish of fermented cabbage combined with mushrooms and Polish sausages. Again, fermentation plays a part in increasing amino acid, and therefore glutamate levels, while mushrooms also provide umami in the form of nucleotides. Moreover, Polish-style sausages are a perfect example of umami in themselves, because unlike British 'bangers' for instance, which are made using ordinary minced meat and rusk, they are cured, so that the umami-imparting glutamate content increases, and they offer a more intense flavour.

    iii) Pierogi

    Pierogi , or Polish style dumplings, share many of the umami-rich qualities of bigos, because they are often filled with fermented cabbage and mushrooms, as well as some kind of meat. These and the other Polish specialties introduced above all use umami to enhance their flavour and appeal, and the importance of this was explored by all three speakers at the symposium.

    Umami: enhancing the palatability of food

    enhancing the palatability of food - UMAMI Infomation CenterDr. Barylko-Pikielna detailed research she had carried out into the effect that umami substances, namely glutamate and the nucleotides inosinate and guanylate, have on the appeal or palatability of various typical Polish soups, such as beetroot soup and chicken and mushroom broths.

    In each case, they enhanced palatability, but it was noticeable that the same amount and ratio of glutamate and nucleotides affected palatability quite differently in the different foods. The Professor therefore concluded that, "glutamate is only one of many substances that may contribute to palatability", but added that the research confirmed that, "both added and naturally occurring umami substances contribute to palatability."

    Umami and quality of life

    The increased palatability that umami brings was also highlighted by another speaker, Professor Przemyslaw Bienkowski of the Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology, Warsaw. He concentrated on the health problems that can occur when some people, the elderly in particular, are less able to experience tastes and smells, making eating less pleasurable.

    He pointed out that "umami substances provide a very good opportunity to alleviate sensory problems in elderly people," and unlike the other main ways of improving palatability - adding fat, sugar and salt - they do not bring health disadvantages. When we spoke to Professor Bienkowski, he cited the cuisine of Japan as one that harnasses the power of umami, and offers colour and variety without large amounts of fat, sugar and salt.
    Umami worldwide

    Courtesy: Dr. Curtis, Uni. Georgia, USA
    While our stay in Warsaw certainly gave us a good idea of the umami rich dishes to be had in Polish cuisine, the third main speaker, Dr. Miro Smriga of Ajinomoto Europe SAS, pointed out that, "umami substances are used all over the world," by showing the audience a map (click here) featuring products from around the world that are high in free glutamate, including tomato ketchup in the USA, nam pla fish sauce from Thailand and cured ham and cheese from Europe.

    In his presentation, entitled, 'Free Glutamate in Foods: The Source of Taste', Dr. Smriga also pointed out that human beings have been harnessing the power of umami for millennia. The ancient Romans, for instance, used sauces called garum and liquamen, which are made using from fermented fish, and therefore have a high glutamate content for depth of flavour.

    He highlighted the importance of glutamate today by recalling an experiment carried out on a Japanese TV programme involving chicken stock. The longer the chicken was boiled in water, "the concentration of free amino acids increased, and among these, free glutamate contributes most significantly to [the flavour of] chicken stock." He also pointed out that as well as harnessing the power of free-found glutamate, a similar effect could be achieved by adding umami seasoning, which contains glutamate in compound form.

    The overall message of the conference was clear: whether you use the free glutamate and inosinate found in umami rich foods, or the monosodium glutamate of umami seasoning, the umami taste can enhance the palatability of a wide range of foods without resorting to fat, sugar and salt, and therefore has an important role to play in enhancing people's enjoyment of food around the world.

    We asked a couple of delegates what they thought of the umami symposium.
    Professor Ying Ma - UMAMI Infomation Center
    [Audience View]
    Professor Ying Ma
    Food Science and Genetic Engineering School, Harbin Insitute of Technology, China

    "I did not know the term umami before today, or what it meant, but now I understand, because umami substances are used a lot in China and other Far Eastern countries. We use umami seasoning, which is derived from a number of sources including corn starch, soya beans and fish proteins. We also often use chicken broth, which has a lot of umami flavour, so although the name was not familiar, the idea behind it is common in China ."

    Dr. Wojaech Kolawowki - UMAMI Infomation Center[Audience View]
    Dr. Wojaech Kolanowski
    Faculty of Human Nutrition at Warsaw Agricultural University.
    "Working in the field of food and nutrition, I was aware of umami before today, but I found the seminar very interesting, in particular the talk by the second speaker, Dr. Bienkowski. It put forward what to me was a new point of view about how important the taste of food is to the well being of people. I suppose because of my job I am a bit tuned in to sensory awareness. In Polish cuisine, there is a lot of umami flavour in bigos, which is a dish of fermented cabbage with meat and mushrooms."

    Future of Food Engineering Conference

  • 'Old Town' Warsaw

    Dr. Nina Barylko-Pikielna


    Bigos and Pierogi

    Pierogi restaurant

    Prof. Bienkowski

    Fish bones found inside a container from the Garum shop

  • Dr. Nina Barylko-Pikielna


    Bigos and Pierogi

    Pierogi restaurant

    Prof. Bienkowski

    Fish bones found inside a container from the Garum shop