“Knowing about umami will not only help us to produce better-tasting meals but will greatly contribute to re-establishing a culture around the communal meals.”—Ole Mouritsen
The following is an interview with Ole Mouritsen, co-author of Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste:
Question: How was umami discovered?
Ole Mouritsen: The taste has always been with us, but it was only given the name umami in 1909 when the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda discovered the substance (glutamate) that make the Japanese soup broth, dashi, so delicious. Umami is a contraction of the Japanese expression umai, which means “delicious,” and mi, which means “essence,” “essential nature,” “taste,” or “flavor.”
Q: What is the importance of umami and how does it change the way we think about taste?
OM: As a basic taste, umami is important for the flavor of food as well as for stimulating appetite, controlling satiety, and hence regulating food intake. Due to its complex interaction with other tastes, e.g., by enhancing sweet and salty and suppressing bitterness, umami will remind us about flavor being a multimodal sensation. Knowing about umami will not only help us to produce better-tasting meals but will greatly contribute to re-establishing a culture around the communal meals.
Q: How can it or should it change the way we eat and prepare food?
OM: The most important aspect of umami is the fact that it builds on a synergistic effect brought about by two components in the food: glutamate that elicits basal umami and nucleotides that enhance the sensation of glutamate. It needs two to tango. In the classical Japanese umami-rich soup broth, dashi, the two components come from seaweeds and fish or shiitake, respectively. It is precisely the same synergy we know so well from pairing eggs with bacon, cheese with ham, vegetables with meat, etc. Knowing about this synergistic principle will guide us to change the way we eat and the way we compose a meal.
Q: Are there particularly umami-rich foods?
OM: Yes, very many, e.g., sun-ripe tomatoes, cured hams, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, fish sauce, dried shiitake, seaweeds, anchovies, and walnuts. You can download a poster with umami-rich food on http://umamibook.net. However, many of umami-rich foods also have other tastes and you have to taste very carefully to identify the umami-component. But if it is absent, you will know immediately.
Q: What is the relationship between umami and MSG?
OM: Umami is elicited by glutamate that is identical to MSG (mono-sodium glutamate). Chemically there is no difference between glutamate from tomatoes, cured ham, and mature cheeses and the MSG that is produced in a chemical factory.
Q: How did the collaboration between you, a scientist, and Klavs, a chef, shape and inform the book?
OM: The book evolved as a true and rather unusual collaboration between myself, a scientist (Ole), a chef (Klavs), and a graphic designer (Jonas). Background research, development of examples and recipes, culinary experimentation, cooking, and photography proceeded in parallel, leading to a book with all elements fine-tuned and closely adjusted to each other. This was great fun and a wonderful experience.