Sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and... umami?

July 13, 2012 (CHICAGO)

We all recognize certain characteristics. There's sweet, sour, bitter and salt. But have you ever heard of umami? It's the fifth taste on our tongues.

Researchers, as well as chefs, continue to explore it, since it's what a lot of us tend to love about eating.

Why does a juicy steak, right off the grill, taste so good? And how come soy sauce - with its salty, fermented essence - compliments fresh sushi and steamed rice so well? Food scientists and researchers have known for years. It's umami, the fifth taste, identified by the Japanese decades ago.

"It's the taste of savoriness or meatiness," said Barb Stuckey. She's a professional food developer and the author of "Taste What You're Missing," a book dedicated to helping consumers better understand how to get maximum flavor from their food. She says umami is just as important as sweet, sour, bitter and salt.

"It's the flavor of things like parmesan cheese or well-aged and well-cooked meat, tomatoes, mushrooms. All of them have this rich fullness or savoriness that we call umami," she said. "So it, essentially, makes food more flavorful."

Even fast food operators are capitalizing on this naturally-occurring substance. In Los Angeles, a chain of Umami Burgers, along with an Umamicatessen have sprouted up. They focus on condiments that enhance the flavor of beef.

"A parmesan wafer, like a potato chip made of parmesan, with oven-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, and our homemade ketchup," said Adam Fleischman, owner of Umami Burger.

Stuckey says understanding what umami is then, can help home cooks improve the flavor of their meals.

"When you've got the complete picture, then you can cook with more confidence, you can season your food with more confidence, and you can, you have a little bit more appreciation for foods that are rich in umami once you're able to detect it," she said.

Chefs like Tony Priolo at Piccolo Sogno are well aware of umami. Even though he cooks Italian, there are plenty of umami opportunities, most notably with the aged parmesan that is often grated tableside. Same goes for the sushi chefs at Kamehachi in Old Town. While they would never encourage dunking, a quick dab of fermented soy sauce offers a hint of umami to complement the fish and rice.

"Understanding that umami plays just as an important role in food as salt, and sweetness, and sourness, then it kind of makes you think about food a little differently," said Stuckey.

Europeans might recognize the yellow and red bottles of "maggi" as an enhancer for sauces and soups. Believe it or not, that too, is a liquid form of umami.

More info

Taste What You're Missing
by Barb Stuckey

1531 N. Wells St.
(312) 664-3663

Piccolo Sogno
464 N. Halsted St.
(312) 421-0077

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