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October 18, 2004

Umami

A New Yorker articles asks why ketchup is not prepared in comparable variety to the myriad of available mustards (via A&L Daily). Good question. But it was an observation about Heinz ketchup that caught my attention. Apparently, Heinz' innovation was to create a condiment that combined all five fundamental human tastes, "salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami."

Umami?

A definition of umami was a quick google away. It is a sad state of affairs when a taste has been around for almost 100 years and I only learn of it now.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University was thinking about the taste of food: "There is a taste which is common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but which is not one of the four well-known tastes of sweet, sour, bitter and salty."

It was in 1907 that Professor Ikeda started his experiments to identify what the source of this distinctive taste was. He knew that it was present in the "broth" made from kombu (a type of seaweed) found in traditional Japanese cuisine. Starting with a tremendous quantity of kombu broth, he succeeded in extracting crystals of glutamic acid (or glutamate). Glutamate is an amino acid, and is a building block of protein. Professor Ikeda found that glutamate had a distinctive taste, different from sweet, sour, bitter and salty, and he named it "umami". 100 grams of dried kombu contain about 1 gram of glutamate.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at October 18, 2004 10:11 AM

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Comments

Glutamate, huh? I wonder if Ikeda's research eventually led to the creation and use of MSG. It might partially explain how MSG became so popular in Asia.

Posted by: Varenius at October 18, 2004 04:41 PM

Yep, that's the case:

The Professor decided to create a seasoning from his newly extracted Glutamate. To be used as a seasoning, his creation would need to have characteristics similar to those of sugar and salt, i.e. be easily water soluble, but neither absorb humidity, nor solidify.
Monosodium Glutamate was found to have excellent storage properties, and had a rich "umami" taste. It turned out to be an ideal seasoning. Because MSG has no specific texture or taste, it can be used in a vast variety of dishes, naturally enhancing the original flavours of the food.

Posted by: Varenius at October 18, 2004 04:50 PM