Sweet, sour, salty, bitter... and now it's the fifth taste
Since its discovery 102 years ago by a Japanese scientist, "umami" has been the object of fascination by chemists and avant-garde chefs determined to discover the secret of the so-called "fifth taste".
But now the esoteric flavour – described as the trigger for the sensation of deliciousness when detected by the brain alongside the primary tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter – is about to jump from the rarefied surroundings of Michelin-starred restaurants and university labs to the high street, with the arrival of umami in a tube.
Two British supermarket chains are to start stocking a paste of ingredients developed by a London restaurateur and food writer, which is rich in the naturally occurring chemicals that create the sense of umami, amid growing scientific evidence that the fifth taste plays a key role in stimulating the digestive system.
The Taste No 5 paste, which will be stocked in 197 branches of Waitrose nationwide from next week and by the Booths food chain in northern England next month, is the first attempt to market a product solely as a source of umami.
Laura Santtini, who developed the purée – which includes pulped anchovy and porcini mushrooms – while she was running her family's Italian restaurant in Belgravia, said: "I wanted to get away from the notion that umami is something of interest to scientists that no one else can really understand. The truth is that umami should be of interest to anyone who has a tongue.
"Umami is part of our everyday eating lives, it is just that many of us don't know what to call it. It is what gives depth of flavour to food. Every food culture has its umami-rich ingredients, whether it is seaweed in Japan or Parmesan in Italy."
Taking its name from the Japanese word for "taste", umami was identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a Tokyo chemist who pinpointed it as the savoury flavour imparted by foods rich in chemicals including glutamate, a building block of protein.
In 2000 researchers at the University of Miami discovered receptors on the tongue which react only to the presence of glutamate in food – suggesting that the body craves umami flavours as an indicator of protein in meat and vegetables.
Interest in the "fifth taste" has subsequently undergone a revival in foodie circles, led by celebrity chefs including Heston Blumenthal. The British gastronaut now features umami-laden dishes at his Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, including a seaweed-and-fish concoction eaten while listening to waves on an iPod.
As well as classic Japanese sources of umami, food experts have highlighted a host of more familiar ingredients which offer the same rounded flavour, including anchovies, Parmesan, mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce and Marmite. Another umami-laden foodstuff is human breast milk.
Simple dishes that have been found to provide umami-rich "flavour bombs" include pea-and-ham soup, cheese on toast, and pork belly cooked with yeast extract.
Waitrose said: "It's only recently that a tangible product related to the fifth taste has become available. We believe our customers will relish the chance to explore it."
Quite whether Britons will soon be murmuring "I think the soup needs a bit more umami" remains to be seen.
What does umami taste like?
Danny Hall, 27, magician, east London
It's a nice taste but not a new one. It's fishy, it reminds me of sardines. I'd use it as a dip for sushi.
Gala Vukicevic, 22, fashion worker, Paris
I enjoyed it. I'd use it to cook meat dishes because it's like a tomato purée. But it's not a new taste.
Annie Smith, 77, retired teacher, north-west London
It certainly doesn't have a nice aftertaste. I am slightly suspicious of it. I don't think it has a wholesome quality.
Stefany Baloche, 22, student, Paris
It is pleasant, it has a taste of olives and tomato so I would make pasta dishes with it.
Mijanou Dilks, 24, lawyer, west London
It's a vaguely familiar taste, similar to tomatoes and olives, but there's something unnatural about it.
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