Does umami exist?
I ask that question the way humanities students ponder whether or not God is a mirage.
Or debate the philosophical constructs behind the question: If people think the Emperor is wearing a really fabulous suit of clothes, even as realists are turning blue in the face trying to convince them he’s actually parading around in nothing, does it matter? If you believe it strongly enough, then it must be so. Right?
I am not a umami atheist. I know too many people whose palates I respect (to the extent that one really knows someone else’s palate) to flat-out claim that umami doesn’t exist. But I am a umami agnostic. If I’ve tasted umami, I’ve never recognized it as being number five on the hit parade of basic tastes. I’m still waiting for that moment of revelation when the clouds part, lightning strikes and umami becomes as clear to me as a sunny day after cataract surgery.
There are a few questions that bother me.
Why did it take us so long to recognize what we were missing?
We have all heard the Creation story. In 1908 a Japanese chemist, Prof. Kikunae Ikeda, detected in his wife’s dashi an element that he believed did not fit into the category of the four basic tastes, salt, sweet, bitter and sour. He called it “umami.”
But he also isolated it and later invented MSG – monosodium glutamate – as a substitute. MSG was wildly popular in the U.S. about 50 years ago before everyone from chefs to food scientists derided it as unhealthy and an anathema to cooking. They said it had too much of another basic taste – salt.
But despite this irony in its background, why did all the great wine tasters and food tasters of centuries past not ask the same question that Ikeda asked – are salt, sweet, bitter, sour all there are? Did they similarly recognize umami, but just couldn’t come up with a name for it?
Not having been noticed or discovered previously by people less prone to put a name on things is not proof that umami doesn’t exist as a primary taste – but it certainly makes me see red flags.
Is umami a taste or a feel?
Whenever a Umamist describes to me the taste of umami, she quickly veers into texture, describing what sounds like the mouth feel of fats and glycerols. I may not know what umami tastes like, but it sounds fatty to me.
Is it a solo object or a combination? Is it too complex to be simple?
In addition to describing to me what sounds like fat, I also get a lot of descriptions of umami being savoury. I get savoury in a lot in wines, but to me, savoury tastes are always combinations of flavors wedded together like garrigue or bacon. Is umami really a blend and not a varietal?
In addition to referencing textures and savoury elements, umami describers also talk about complexity. That, and the list of umami-rich foods – cured meats to sweet potatoes, dashi to cheese – all sound like complex, compound tastes to me.
If umami is basic, why can’t it be isolated and easily identifiable as sweet, salt, bitter and sour are? Or maybe it’s an insider’s basic flavor than only the intelligentsia can detect.
Does the recognition of umami serve to rehabilitate MSG?
Perhaps, but I will leave that argument up to the foodies and chefs. Although umami sounds like a good back story for MSG marketers to come up with. But, to my knowledge, I’ve never had MSG in wine, although that may still be legal in California.
What would happen if we simply forgot about umami and went back to the four basics?
I for one would welcome that, but an uprising of umami deniers may prove as unlikely as trying to turn the tide, reverse Brexit or getting a whole row of seats to yourself on an overnight flight to Paris.
What if a true believer wants to prove to me the existence of umami over a glass of 2005 DRG Romanée-Conti?
Then I will try very, very hard to see the light.
This piece is Roger Morris's opinion.