In Search of Umami
Mark Monette, Flagstaff House: "It's not real. I think it's an invented thing. When I'm balancing taste, I go back to the things I know work well together."
Joe Schneider, Rhumba: "Never heard of it."
Andy Floyd, Cooking School of the Rockies: "It's natural MSG. It's in mushrooms, medium-rare meat, fish paste. It's all-encompassing; it coats your whole mouth. It's an ethereal type of concept, not defined like bitter and sweet. I'm not really convinced that it can or needs to be identified."
Bruce Yim, Sweet Basil: "I don't know it."
Charles Dale, Renaissance and Rustique: "Perhaps it's a synergy, a blending of flavors."
James Mazzio, Triana: "Excuse me? My mommy?"
I am seated at the bar of the Full Moon Grill in Boulder with two chefs: John Duran of Full Moon and Tim Bouse, head chef for the Chautauqua Dining Hall. In front of us is a row of plates containing the following: raw oysters, cubes of parmesan and Gorgonzola cheeses, sliced Roma tomatoes, a medium-rare steak cut into pieces, oysters and shiitake mushrooms. All of these things supposedly communicate the taste of umami.
The word "umami" has been cropping up in food magazines, on television programs and wherever the cognoscenti meet to graze. It is supposedly the fifth taste -- the others being sweet, salty, sour and bitter -- and it is variously described as savory, rounded, richly delicious or, according to one Internet scribe, that "ineffable something" that's missing when you've added a dash of sugar or a pinch of salt to a dish and still are unable to get exactly the taste you wanted.
"We've looked for it," says Bouse.
"We couldn't find it," concurs Duran.
We begin nibbling at the foods in front of us to see if we can identify one taste that's common to all of them.
"I'm trying to make the middle of my tongue more sensitive," says Bouse.
Our tongues are dotted with tastebuds, and each bud is made up of several cells. Taste cells specialize, some responding to sweet, some to salty, some to sour and some to bitter; a protein molecule on the taste cell generates a signal to the brain in the presence of a specific taste molecule. There are those who believe we perceive bitter tastes at the backs of our tongues, sour and salty along the sides, and sweet at the tips. While experts acknowledge this may be broadly true, they say that taste is, in fact, far more diffuse.
The concept of umami has existed in Oriental cooking for centuries. The word itself was coined in 1908 by a Japanese researcher, Kikunae Ikeda, who, after sipping seaweed broth, isolated and identified the glutamate molecule. His discovery spurred the commercial production of MSG -- primarily glutamic acid, along with water and salt. A year ago, researchers in Miami found a taste-cell receptor in rats -- mglur4 -- that responds to glutamic acid, which is found in all protein-containing foods and, together with inosinate and guanylate, supposedly creates the umami sensation. This taste concentrates in the center of the tongue.
Bouse eats a mushroom, furrows his brow, muses that perhaps he is sensing something specific. But "maybe that's just the dirt on the shiitakes," he says.
"They weren't grown in dirt," Duran responds.
They continue tasting. Duran decides he wants to try all the foods at once. He makes a finger sandwich of cheese, tomato, shiitake, steak and oyster juice and chews meditatively. "That's a little more interesting," he says. "The whole middle of your mouth sort of tingles."
"But maybe it's just psychological," muses Bouse. "Like going to a haunted house and looking for a ghost. If you want to see one, you will. Umami's like the ghost of a flavor."
Duran nods. "You're not going to sit down for dinner and say, 'Wow, that has a lot of umami.' Or, 'Could I have a little more umami?'"
I mention the concept of the "ineffable something" missing even after you've added salt or sugar, and Bouse shakes his head: "If something needs more salt, I put more salt on it and it's fine."
True believers think that while we may not have heard the actual word "umami" until recently, Westerners do respond to the taste. It is concentrated strongly in the parmesan cheese of Italian cuisine and the ketchup Americans pour so liberally over their food.
A week after our tasting, we meet again at the Full Moon Grill. This time, sous chef Lauran Knight serves us each three bowls of thick chicken stock. One is plain, one is salted, and one contains MSG. She has marked the bowls with tape; although she doesn't tell us which is which, it takes only a sip to figure it out.
"The MSG definitely changes the flavor," says Bouse.
Without question, the MSG-laced stock is the most delicious -- slightly salty, but also richer, mellower and more rounded.
"The taste of salt is one-dimensional," says Duran. "The MSG is multi-dimensional."
Duran tries adding more MSG. When you overdo it, he notes, there's a tartness at the edge of the tongue and a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Knight shakes MSG into her palm and tastes the powder directly with the tip of her tongue. "I'm tasting sweet," she says. "Then a little acid."
I copy her. It's true: Sweetness is the first sensation.
"Okay," says Bouse. "Now define umami. You can't. You can't do it without referring to one of the other flavors."
"Maybe it's a combination of all of them," says Knight.
"Then it wouldn't be a flavor."
"Yes, it would. Like black. Black is all colors."
Bouse tastes the soup with too much MSG. "If you over-reduced the hell out of chicken stock, this is what you'd get," he says.
"It's more like a sensation than a flavor," says Duran. "Remember back when you took LSD? Anything you ate -- if you just drank a soda -- the flavor was intensified."
"Your neurons fired more rapidly," Knight adds.
"So it's not adding flavor...," muses Bouse.
"...but more like concentrating it," concludes Knight.
I go home to do a little research on the Web. The University of California Wellness Letter reports that the Chinese and Japanese are puzzled by Westerners' aversion to MSG; according to all available evidence, MSG is entirely safe, and Chinese-restaurant syndrome is a myth.
One researcher has posted his theory that umami is an essential flavor attribute of quality dry wines and that this has implications "in virtually every aspect of viticulture, wine-making and cellaring."
"Does anyone have a reference to a paper that shows the finding of umami receptors on human tongues?" asks a cynic.
"The credibility of umami as a fundamental taste is very well accepted in current sensory scientific circles," writes a supporter of umami. And if umami is to be savored in its "true intensity," MSG alone is not enough: Glutamate should be combined with ribonucleotides. "The anchovies in a Caesar salad have both msg, salt and nucleotides," he writes. "Leave them out, and even the msg-loaded Parmesan cheese cannot provide the intensity we desire."
I contemplate relaying this information to Bouse and Duran, but decide to hold my tongue.
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