'The fifth taste': Chefs are harnessing umami's savoury powers to change the way we eat

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

We've known about the so-called 'fifth taste' for more than 100 years.

You may not have noticed, but in the mid-1990s you gained an extra taste. We went to bed one night, all happy with our four taste receptors for sweet, sour, salty and bitter, and then, while we were asleep, the tide of thinking in food science changed incontrovertibly. We woke up with another taste, one known well in Asia but not in the West. That day we were able to taste umami, the so-called fifth taste.

Of course, we had the taste receptors to recognise and savour the briny, mouth-filling taste all along; as Japanese chefs had long argued. But it was only then that scientific thought on the matter reached a critical mass. It became, if you like, an umami tsunami.

Before that, when we were making marinades or the more adventurous of us were creating new dishes, we built them – subconsciously or otherwise – around the other four pillars of taste, which with a bit of luck would all be present in there somewhere in a nice, harmonious balance. In short, no one ever shoved a fork into a stew, tried it and said, "hmm, needs a little more umami". Perhaps most of us, chefs and home cooks alike, do still think in that four-point paradigm. But for a growing number, ignoring umami would be like missing out on bread or potatoes.

For starters, witness the wealth of restaurants making hay with the taste. In London there's Umami, the East Asian restaurant that opened last month in Kensington, which makes great play with the flavour in its noodle and broth dishes. The Hawksmoor, too, goes big on it. Routinely referred to as the best burger and steak restaurant in town, it serves a Longhorn beef burger that has been specially constructed, not just with the fifth taste in mind – but around it. But as its executive chef Richard Turner points out: "We build our entire menu on it; not many other chefs are even aware of it."

Likewise, when Heston Blumenthal started redesigning British Airways' in-flight menu he increased the amount of umami in the food, having found that while other tastes recede in the arid atmosphere of the cabin, umami does not. He has also spoken of its centrality to his cooking at his Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in Bray. It is, he has said, "something very close to my heart". At this point you might find yourself saying: all well and good, but this sounds like something for the culinary élite, something on the edges of the avant garde. But that isn't quite so. In LA, punters snake out of the doors of Adam Fleischman's seven Umami Burger joints, where the extroverted, tightly stacked meat buns costs $10 (£6). (Not quite McDonald's prices, but not bad either.) "Although we only opened in 2009, we sell 5,000 burgers every day," says Fleischman, who has successfully trademarked the name "umami".

Closer to home, the Italian cookery writer Laura Santtini has teamed up with the man behind the Michelin-starred Nobu chain, Nobu Masuhisa, to create a new Taste No 5 Umami Far Eastern Vegetarian paste. The second of her umami pastes (the first was inspired by Mediterranean umami flavours), it goes on sale in Waitrose in April.

Look at that roster of chefs and restaurants and what becomes clear is that umami isn't bound to a geographical area, price bracket or type of food. Richard Turner says the reason is simple: you find umami everywhere. "Deconstruct a Hawksmoor umami burger and you won't find anything particularly out of the ordinary," he says. According to Turner, they add fried mushroom, sun-dried tomato, roasted parmesan and ogleshield cheese, slow-fried onions, ketchup and some Parmesan butter to the Longhorn beef patty. "It has been hit and miss for customers," Turner says. "But if you are open to it, it gives a flavour that is the essence of savouriness."

Ah yes, that elusive flavour. What is it that gives it what is described in the US as "mouthfulness", by Laura Santtini as "pure deliciousness" and – not altogether helpfully – by the journal Chemical Science as the "flavour of boiled crab"? Jeya Henry, professor of human nutrition at Oxford Brookes University, says: "A food that is high in umami is rich in an amino acid called glutamate, one of the building blocks of protein. In high concentrations it makes food very flavoursome. There have been an awful lot of studies to support this. After all, it has been around as a concept in the West for quite some time."

In fact, it dates back to 1907. It was then that the chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda, of Tokyo Imperial University, noted a taste "common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, but which is not one of the four well-known tastes". It was he who first isolated the glutamate (and gave it its name, which is a play on the word umai, which loosely translates as yum in Japanese). What he also did, which may account for some residual cynicism, is use this know-how to manufacture it. He invented MSG (monosodium glutamate), which subsequently became a leitmotif for unhealthy, takeaway-style eating in the late 20th century, an all-purpose bogeyman. The charges laid against MSG have included, variously, that it induces headaches, allergies and causes dehydration (together referred to as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome). And in the foodies' hive mind, Umami and MSG were indelibly linked. If then, MSG is a pure expression of umami, in the same way sugar is the classic expression of sweet, should we go easy on it? Is the 200,000 tonnes of MSG made each year actually a danger to our collective health? Should we avoid umami-rich food?

Not at all, Professor Henry says. "First of all, we should note, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome has been shown to be something of an old wives' tale," he says. "Numerous big clinical studies have debunked it. You have to understand glutamates have always been with us and part of our diets; you even find them in breast milk. It would be a great pity if anyone missed out on the umami taste because of these residual claims. They're the equivalent of saying the earth is flat: it isn't, and glutamates won't harm you."

Umami, then, has come of age – and things are looking just rosy for it. Where once it was seen as a blight, now it skips around that part of the health spectrum marked "blessing". The reason? It is a handy alternative to salt. Just as a few pinches of sodium can improve a dish, so the well judged addition of a few anchovies or a lump of parmesan can pump up the umami without detracting from the flavour. By playing with the fifth taste we can reduce artery-hardening fat and salt in dishes, without losing out on the flavour.

It is that rare, almost unique thing: something that tastes good and won't make you fat, ill, intoxicated or soporific. So, we may have been too busy listening to Blur or voting New Labour to notice this addition to our palate in the 1990s, but today, with its ascent, there's little excuse not to make hay with this very interesting taste.

Suggested Topics
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

    £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - major leisure brand

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Partner

    £25000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Partner is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn