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TRENDS: Umami, The Fifth Taste

The weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal devoted a lot of space to an article called “A New Taste Sensation,” umami.

However, this was news two years ago when Anna Kasabian and David Kasabian wrote their seminal book on the topic, The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami. It was the talk of gastronomy circles, and THE NIBBLE wrote a long article on umami.

But, like sous vide and Gewürtztraminer, the concept didn’t trickle down to most fine food enthusiasts. It’s just a bit too east of mainstream.

We have often thought about teaching a course on umami, because the fifth taste is not as easy to understand as the other four: sweet, salty, sour and bitter.

  • Want to taste sweet? Sugar is unmistakable, and you can find that same taste in baked goods, fruit and other sweet substances.
  • It’s the same with salt, the sourness of lemon juice or vinegar, and the bitterness of arugula.
    But there is no one umami flavor. The word itself means “deliciousness” in Japanese; it is also described as “brothy” and “savory in English.”

    Umami foods are characterized as having a high level of glutamate, an amino acid. MSG (monosodium glutamate), a manufactured form of natural glutamate. Glutamate adds flavor to food, just as sugar adds sweetness, salt adds saltiness and vinegar and lemon juice add tartness. All of these heighten the flavors of the foods they enhance.

    Yet, back to the argument: We can identify sweet, salty, bitter and sour. What does umami taste like?

    Somewhat like the flavors ascribed to a particular wine varietal, you have to taste and taste until you “get it.” We can name foods and dishes that contain umami flavor, but cannot point to any single, easily-recognizable flavor attribute. There is no umami equivalent of sweet, salty, sour/tart and bitter.

    According to the experts, here are some of the cornerstone products that showcase umami: anchovies, dried mushrooms, fish sauce (including Worcestershire sauce), ketchup, konbu*, MSG, Parmesan cheese and soy sauce.

    What do they have in common? This question takes us back to the beginning.

  • If you asked what ice cream, chocolate, orange juice, cherries and marzipan have in common, one might say “sweetness” or “sugar.”
  • What about anchovies, mushroom stock, Parmesan cheese and soy sauce? One might describe them as salty. The same with bacon, ham, salt pork, sausage, smoked fish and so on.
  • If someone had you taste arugula or watercress, it wouldn’t be too hard to classify them as bitter.
  •   Parmigiano Reggiano Wedge & Grater
    [1] For the best flavor, grate a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano as you need it. It’s cheesy, yes; but it’s also umami—brothy and savory (photo © Yin Yang | iStock Photo).

    Mixed Dried Mushrooms
    [2] Dried mushrooms are an excellent source of umami flavor (photo © Caviar Russe | NYC).

    Umami Food
    [3] Soy sauce, a major umami food, and the the soybeans from which they are made (photo © Bush Beans).

    But try as we can, we still can’t match umami flavors to konbu and tomato until they are made into broth or other recipe—and then the commonality is the salt added to the recipe. Both are mild, even delicate in flavor until they join other ingredients.
    We might describe a vine-ripened tomato as sweet, or seaweed as briny/salty. But, umami claims them as well.

    None of this is addressed by The Wall Street Journal article or any other article we’ve read. The answer must be that umami double dips.

    It seems to us that every food that umami claims as its own can fall within one of the four existing classes, whereas sweet, salty, sour and better are completely discrete. For much of umami, we take it on faith, and that we’ll find the path sooner or later.

    And this is why umami, the fifth taste, has not “broken out” in the West. You can train people how to combine ingredients for heightened umami flavors, you can hand out umami-enriched recipes, you can print lists of umami-rich foods for people to memorize, but you can’t train them to identify them “umami taste.”

    *Konbu is a type of kelp, a large seaweed used to make dashi, a soup and cooking stock used in Japanese cuisines. Miso soup is made with dashi stock.

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    NEWS: Healthy Eating, Not For The Price-Conscious

    Salad Mix

    Save money on low-calorie food: Buy and cut
    your own romaine instead of pre-cut salad mixes.
      This will come as no surprise to those who strive to cook healthy meals, but researchers at the University of Washington have found that junk food not only costs less than fruits and vegetables, but it is also less likely to rise in price as a result of inflation. As reported in The New York Times, the study compared the price per calorie of 370 different foods in the Seattle area. The results are somewhat alarming: The higher-calorie, energy-dense foods (e.g. candy, pastries, baked goods and snacks) cost an average of $1.76 per 1,000 calories, while low-calorie, nutritious foods averaged at $18.16 per 1,000 calories. Moreover, these low-calorie foods grew 19.5% in price during the course of the two year study while the high-calorie foods dropped 1.8%. According to the study, a 2,000-calorie diet of junk food would cost a mere $3.52 per person, per day; a 2,000-calorie diet of low-calorie, dense foods costs a whopping $36.32.
    The data indicate that it is easier for low-income individuals to sustain themselves on junk food rather than healthier alternatives. In response to angry posts from many healthy eaters who make do on food budgets of $15 to $20 a week, Tara Parker-Pope, who wrote the story, responded that it showed “…extreme examples to make the point of the price disparity between energy dense food and more nutritious food….The average American spends about $7 a day on food, while low-income people spend $3 to $4 a day.” Read all of the responses. For our favorite healthy foods, check out our NutriNibbles section in THE NIBBLE online magazine—the products may cost more than a bag of potato chips, but your body will thank you.

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    NEWS: American Craft Beers Win International Awards

    It’s not just America’s artisan cheeses that are bringing home the medals at international competitions: Craft beers are holding their own as well, winning a combined 30 medals at the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival and the European Beer Star Competition. According to the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade and education association for American craft brewers and the community of beer enthusiasts (, 18 U.S. craft breweries participated in the U.S. craft beer booth at the 2007 Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival, and eight won medals:
    Category: Well Hopped Lager max 5.9% ABV
    Silver – Boston Lager, Boston Beer Co.
    Category: Ale 4.8% to 5.9%

    Gold – Harpoon IPA, Harpoon Brewery
    Silver – Red Seal Ale, North Coast Brewing Company Inc.
    Bronze – 5 Barrel Pale Ale, Odell Brewing Co.
    Category: Porter/Stout to 5.9% ABV
    Gold – Porter, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
    Silver – St. Bridget’s Porter, Great Divide Brewing Co.

    Dark ale with pheasant. Photo courtesy of Brewers Association.
    Category: Strong Beer 6.0% ABV and above
    Gold – Shakespeare Stout, Rogue Ales

    Category: Strong Beer 8.0% ABV and above

    Gold – 90 Minute IPA, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. In a field of 575 entries from breweries in 58 countries, there were 22 U.S. craft brewery medal winners in the European Beer Star Competition—one of the industry’s most coveted awards, recognizing original and innovative beers.
    Gold Medal Winners:
    Brewery Ommegang: Hennepin Farmhouse Saison
    Boston Beer Co: Samuel Adams Cream Stout, Samuel Adams Holiday Porter, and Samuel Adams Brown Ale
    Deschutes Brewery: Obsidian Stout, Bachelor ESB, and Abyss
    Harpoon Brewery: Harpoon Octoberfest and Harpoon IPA
    Silver Medal Winners:
    Boston Beer Co: Samuel Adams Black Lager, Samuel Adams Pale Ale, and Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig
    Deschutes Brewery: Black Butte Porter
    Great Divide Brewing Co: Titan IPA, and Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout
    Left Hand Brewing Co: Milk Stout
    Victory Brewing Co: Victory Prima Pils
    Bronze Medal Winners:
    Alaskan Brewing and Bottling Co: Alaskan Smoked Porter
    Boston Beer Co: Samuel Adams Boston Ale, and Samuel Adams Honey Porter
    Rogue Ales: Shakespeare Stout
    Victory Brewing Co: Victory Storm King Stout
    Try gathering up some of these winners for your holiday parties. Dark ales and Scottish ales are delicious with turkey, pheasant and goose—don’t hesitate to serve them with your holiday dinner. Other suggestions: Belgian red cherry or raspberry beer with turkey or ham, brown ale with spiced pumpkin soup (look for Rock Bottom’s Old Elk Brown Ale), spiced ale with pumpkin pie, Bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout with sweet potato pie and vanilla ice cream. For spicy dishes, try an Indian Pale Ale like Sierra Nevada’s Celebration. Visit the Beer Section of THE NIBBLE online magazine for more information about beer.

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    REVIEW: Terra Medi Greek Oils, Olives, Bruschetta & Tapenade

    Extra Virgin Olive Oil
    Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, EVOO, and EV Sesame Oil.
      Olive lovers have a friend in Terra Medi. The company imports top-quality olive oils, bruschettas, tapenades, olive mixes, vinegars and a sesame oil from Greece. The bruschettas and tapenades are versatile ingredients for entertaining or for sprucing up everyday meals. They have found permanent fans in us, and are well priced for gift giving. Olive oil, made from the Koroneiki olive, is available in regular and organic bottlings (the regular is mellow, the organic peppery). The red and white wine vinegars are among the finest we have had, and a bargain at $6.99 a bottle. The balsamic vinegar is not aged in traditional Modena woods, but instead has a lovely, pruny taste instead of the caramel flavors of Modena balsamics (and their imitators). The olive mixes are tops (especially the Mixed Olives with Fennel, Orange and Rosemary). Read the full review, which includes the origin of bruschetta. See more of our favorite oils and dips and spreads in THE NIBBLE online magazine.

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    REVIEW: Sugar Flower Bakery

    When you’re in the mood for a comforting home-baked cookie, but don’t have the inclination to fire up the oven, call upon Sugar Flower Bakery. The small company makes classic comfort cookies that bring you back to childhood days in Mom’s or Grandmother’s kitchen, when nothing tasted better than homemade cookies, whipped up from scratch. If your family didn’t bake, we’re sorry; but you can still enjoy the experience one step removed. We love all the flavors; they make charming cookie gifts. People who love chocolate and mint are advised to buy a lot of the Chocolate Mint cookies. Read the full article, and check out our other favorite cookies in the Cookie Section of THE NIBBLE online magazine.   Sugar Flower
    Don’t forget the milk!

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