Umami Has Come to Stay

Umami, Ole Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbaek

We conclude our week-long feature on Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste by Ole Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbaek with the authors’ discussion of the importance of umami for the way we think about food and diet:

“We consider umami to be the central point around which the circle of deliciousness revolves and are convinced that it deserves a place of honor in all the food cultures of the world.”—Ole Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbaek

As we have seen throughout this book, umami is a relatively new label for a taste that, for possibly the past 1.9 million years, has been an integral aspect of the food of modern humankind and its ancestors. It is an attribute of nutritious food and in this way has steered our preference for food with that particular taste. The taste is intensified when we work with the raw ingredients in certain ways, which have been refined in the course of millennia and which are the very heart of our food cultures, culinary skills, and gastronomy. Virtually all the cuisines in the world seem to strive to impart umami, each with its typical and regional raw ingredients and centuries-old techniques. Of all the techniques, cooking, aging, and fermenting are best able to draw out umami.

Generations of housewives, cooks, and chefs have known intuitively how to elicit umami and that it is indispensable. In more recent times, food manufacturers, gourmets, and innovative chefs have become aware of its synergistic effect and have started to tap into its potential in a rational, creative way. Nevertheless, many of us have not yet gained an easy familiarity with the word umami as an expression to describe savoriness in our raw ingredients, our food, our meals, and our food cultures.

Science has taught us which substances in the raw ingredients can help to impart umami, and, armed with this knowledge, we are better able to understand why food has umami tastes and, just as important, what we have to do to enhance them. We now also know that what characterizes umami is the multiplier effect. This taste comes fully into its own only with the help of an intimate interaction, a synergy between two types of substances, glutamate and ribonucleotides. An awareness of which raw ingredients are sources of these two substances allows us to sharpen our insight into how we can prepare more delicious meals. While this will naturally be of great value in the field of advanced gastronomy, it is of equal importance in our own kitchens, where we can use it to real advantage, even with simple techniques and local ingredients.

It is our contention that delicious effects attributable to umami can be combined with good eating habits and overall wellness. Deliciousness can be a source of greater enjoyment and satisfaction in a meal without leading to gluttony. Current estimates indicate that more than one out of every five people in the world is overweight; obesity is rapidly becoming a global epidemic. In its wake comes a long list of illnesses, not least of which are cardiovascular disease and diabetes. To a large extent, this increase in obesity is due to a change in dietary habits and a lack of physical exercise. The change in dietary habits is often caused by lack of information about raw ingredients, little experience in food preparation, and an ignorance of the importance of a real food culture and of sitting down together at mealtimes. We have seen the quality of the raw ingredients and the time needed to prepare them carefully being forced, time and again, to give way to quantity and convenience. Knowledge of umami can help to counteract these trends by inspiring us to produce healthier, tastier meals with reduced salt, sugar, and fat contents and to use foodstuffs more fully, with less waste.

In many Western countries, the diet is out of balance when it comes to fruits and vegetables. The recommended daily intake is 600 grams, but many people have problems coming near that quota, especially when it comes to vegetables. Some vegetables have very few umami substances and are not very palatable, especially if they are eaten raw. Once again, we could turn to the Japanese “enlightened kitchen” to devise ways of serving delicious food made with vegetables. The secret is to use dashi to bring umami to the vegetables. As we have seen in this book, it is possible to imbue otherwise bland ingredients, such as green salads and certain vegetables, with a savory taste by combining them with ingredients that are a source of either basal or synergistic umami.

We consider umami to be the central point around which the circle of deliciousness revolves and are convinced that it deserves a place of honor in all the food cultures of the world. Let us make the appreciation of umami our challenge and the discovery of savoriness our mission. We and our children should feel free to experiment in our own kitchens without being bound by the limits imposed by traditions or predetermined by the mass production of foods. It is our hope that every generation will build on the past to interpret umami for itself and seek it out in fresh, new ways.

Armed with its official recognition by the scientific community as a true basic taste and bolstered by our own heightened awareness of the role it plays in our food, umami has joined the ranks of the indispensable culinary tools—it has come to stay.

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