It describes Parmesan cheese, Marmite, ketchup and Cheesy Wotsits but, it seems, food experts are still at a loss as to what makes something ‘umami’.
The word defines the elusive fifth taste – after salty, sour, sweet and bitter – that makes certain foods delicious.
However a pithy, clear description of what it is, exactly – and how to encourage consumers to get in touch with their inner umami – eluded the chefs, sommeliers and scientists who made up the panel of a lively Frontiers of Taste discussion at the recent Cheltenham Science Festival.
‘What we do know is that you need to get the smell of a food just right in order to maximise the umami qualities,’ explained Oxford Experimental Psychology Professor Edmund Rolls, who studies the role of umami in neuroscience and taste physiology.
There has to be cognition and context as well – a concept in which three Michelin-star chef Heston Blumenthal is particularly interested.
‘If I offered crab ice cream, most people would balk,’ he said. ‘But if I told them the same dish was frozen crab bisque, they would have a different expectation.’
Participants did concur on the attributes of umami – savoury, more-ish, delicious. Chef Ichiro Kubata of London’s Umu restaurant suggested that consumers were being blinded with science, and that appreciation of umami is rooted in the foods of childhood.
Premium saké specialist Isaké contended that saké is more umami than wine because it has more amino acids.
In the end, there was agreement that glutamates, found in glutamic acid (a protein amino acid), are critical, and much has to be done to defeat the poor reputation caused by over-use of mono-sodium glutamate (MSG).
Yet the result was an inconclusive, albeit justificatory, ‘you know it when you taste it.’
Written by Maggie Rosen