What makes these foods so delicious?
What do bacon, anchovies, eggs, garlic, soy sauce, mushroom, seaweed, green tea, onions, tomatoes, aged cheese and breast milk have in common?
Umami, the fifth taste
Sweet, salty, sour and bitter were long thought thought to be the only four primary tastes that make up the human palate. They are considered "primary" tastes because a primary taste cannot be created by mixing two other primary tastes. Much like primary colors cannot be created by mixing other primary colors. At the turn of the century a fifth taste was identified by a Japanese scholar who identified glutamate as the substance that gave a wide variety of foods their savory deliciousness. In the 1980's the presence of this 5th taste has been scientifically documented and is now internationally recognized.
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Naturally occurring and satisfying
Umami occurs naturally in foods containing glutamate and ribonucleotides in a wide variety of foods, including meats, shellfish, vegetables and fermented foods. When present in food, umami provides savory richness that literally induces salivation and satisfaction. Umami is good stuff! Because of their natural sayety, foods rich in umami often do not require as much salt as non-umami foods. MSG is a chemical flavor enhancer that can emulate umami, but should not be confused with naturally occurring umami.
How to get the most out of umami
Now that we know there are specific ingredients that actually makes us drool just thinking about them, we can incorporate this knowledge into our cooking. We can add umami-rich foods to our recipes to improve upon them. The umami effect can be magnified by combining multiple umami-rich ingredients.
Here is a partial list of umami-rich foods:
Anchovies, asparagus, balsamic vinegar, carrots, catsup, celery, aged cheese (particularly Parmesan, Emmental and blue cheeses), chicken, corn, dried beans, edamame, eggs, garlic, green tea, hoisin, kimchee, konbo, marmite, meat, miso, onions, potatoes, prosciutto and other dry-cured meats, red peppers, red wine, salmon, sardines, shellfish, sauerkraut soy sauce, spinach, sweet potatoes, Thai fish sauce, tofu, tomatoes (particularly the seeds), walnuts and Worcestershire sauce.