Bring on the Umami


Pray tell, what is Umami? Maybe it’s a type or form of edamame, or a new kind of sushi. It could also be a new yoga-inspired clothing line or perhaps it’s the term for “mother” in some country somewhere.

Would you have ever guessed that Umami is one of your five taste senses? You have your sweet, your salty, your bitter, and your sour – and, your Umami. I happened to be listening to a piece on Morning Edition (for those of you unaware, it’s a show on NPR) as I drove into work today where the origin of Umami was explained.

Several thousand years ago, Greek philosopher Democritus came up with the idea that there were only four tastes a person could experience (see above list). And down through the ages, from Plato to Aristotle and other noted scientists, everyone seemed to agree. There couldn’t possibly be more than four. But this is before Democritus (or any other esteemed scientist) could understand or be aware of the power of French cuisine.

In the late 1800’s, Auguste Escoffier was the chef in Paris and he was creating meals that no one could describe as they were a combination of sweet, salty, sour, bitter – everything tasted new (he invented veal stock). People were smacking their lips and paying grotesque sums of money to eat at his restaurant but because scientists couldn’t explain the taste, it wasn’t real. All that loverly taste patrons were experiencing was in their heads.

Here is where I pause in the story because I find this part fascinating: the menu items were real, they were tangible, they were being ingested – but the flavor? Totally unreal. So therefore, it didn’t exist. How would you like to look down at your pot roast after taking a bite and say, “This taste is unreal! I can’t describe it, so therefore I must not be eating it which means I can eat however much I want!” I see the allure…

Anyway, back to the story. At the same time Escoffier was conjuring up unbelievable dishes in Paris, in Japan a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda was discovering a similar notion when eating a bowl of dashi (a seaweed soup). He couldn’t figure out how to describe the taste so he conducted experiments and discovered glutamic acid. Of course, who wants to eat food that sounds as if it’s acidic? Being the ever-so-wise scientist that he was, he decided to rename the taste and call it “umami” which translated is “yummy” in Japanese.

book2.jpg Part of this story comes from a book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer and I have to go get this now. Besides the brilliant Escoffier, he touches on Proust, Whitman, George Elliott, Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Wolf, all artists in their own right. And as Morning Edition so eloquently put it:

An artist is busy about his/her work and happens to observe something or sense something about the real world that scientists have not yet noticed, or that scientists say is not true. But because artists are so good at describing what it’s like to experience the world, so intent on delivering the truth of what it feels like to be alive, so intuitive, in each of these eight cases, the artists learn something that the scientists don’t discover until years later.

Art, Jonah reminds us, describes the same world that science does; art just does it by a different route. And sometimes, more often than you would suppose, the artists get there first.

This is what has always attracted to me to artistic endeavors as they are just another way of describing the world around us. And also that we need not be so scientific in discovering new things or testing hypotheses. Just experience! Create! Find your own umami.


One comment

  1. Dave · November 8, 2007

    Thank you for publishing this article.

    I believe the disbelief that the scientists had in Escoffier’s time, and ever since then until 2002, was not that what they were tasting didn’t exist, but rather that another basic taste didn’t exist. They thought that the four ‘known’ basic tastes must be able to be combined to create that flavor. They couldn’t deny the delicious taste, but they disagreed on what made up the taste.

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