Halal Consumer - Issue 28 - page 9

Since the beginning of time, we have
based the human sense of taste upon
four basic flavor profiles: sweet, salty,
sour, and bitter. When cooking, we often
ask ourselves, “Is this too salty?” or “Do
I need to add sugar?” How often do we
find ourselves asking if our meal is rich in
umami? What is umami?
Umami is the fifth taste, which had remained unnamed until the
early 1900s when Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at the
Imperial University of Tokyo, discovered it. A Japanese-coined
phrase, umami can be defined as a “pleasant savory taste” or
“yummy.” Ikeda found a distinct taste in dashi, a cooking stock
used in Japanese cuisine. Its taste did not fit in with the other
four basic tastes, and his research led him to find that there was
a fifth basic taste that needed to be recognized.
When foods ferment, like cheese, or when meat begins to cook
under the heat of an open flame, the proteins undergo a molecu-
lar change. The proteins are then completely broken apart into
various units, one of which is a molecule called L-glutamate.
Glutamate is the singular molecule responsible for umami.
Similar to the other four basic tastes, umami is sensed when
L-glutamate binds to specific receptors on your tongue, causing
a chain reaction of chemical processes resulting in taste.
From an anatomical standpoint, the tongue map suggests that
receptors for the other four primary taste buds have boundar-
ies that separate them. However, umami receptors are said to be
found all over the tongue. Basically, umami has broken through
all of the boundaries which restrict the other four basic tastes.
Umami, you little rebel.
Umami has found a very comfortable home in the culinary
world. Cutting edge chefs are using multiple umami ingredi-
ents to create dishes that can be considered umami bombs, or
dishes rich in umami. Umami bombs can be found in various
cuisines. Many classical food pairing phenomena, such as the
cheeseburger, can be explained by the interaction of umami-rich
ingredients. The cheeseburger made its mark long ago in the
United States’ fast food industry. However, restaurateurs have
managed to reinvent this classic American fare by focusing on
using umami-rich ingredients. Popular California and New York
food chain, Umami Burger, is dedicated to creating the “per-
fect mouthful” for patrons. Their signature burger, the “Umami
Burger,” is served with shitake mushrooms, roasted tomatoes,
caramelized onions, parmesan crisp, and umami ketchup.
Other popular American fare, such as pizza and submarine
sandwiches, are rich in umami. Perhaps these foods have
become iconic in America due to their umami-rich ingredients.
Traditional Asian foods rich in umami are fish paste, soy sauce,
miso paste, and bonito flakes. Other umami-filled foods include
ketchup, cured meats, fish, shellfish, tomatoes, spinach, aged
cheese, and even green tea. Even potatoes have a degree of
umami. Although umami is not palatable by itself, it is enhanced
by the proper use of salt. Perhaps that is why “you can’t eat just
one” potato chip.
Umami has been secretly enhancing food experiences for hun-
dreds of centuries. Caesar salad is a classic dish bursting with
umami. Anchovies and parmesan are considered a rich and clas-
sic umami pairing.
Interestingly, breast milk is also noted to be rich in umami. It
is said to contain the same amount of umami that is found in
broths such as miso or dashi. Looks like infants may have one
leg up on foodies across globe. Got umami?
Experienced food scientist, Zeinab Ali, sheds an entirely differ-
ent light on the subject. She explains, “Expectations for foods
[one] can reference from memory, and with pleasant experi-
ences, heighten umami levels.” When one can relate a particular
food to a pleasing memory, the food itself conjures up the feel-
ings associated with that memory as well. As umami is often
referred to as “pleasant,” this also directly implies that umami
affects the way the mind retrieves memories. In other words,
umami can also be defined as the “comfort” in comfort foods.
An example of this notion can be taken from the Disney Pixar
. In the final scenes of the movie, a harsh food
critic is brought back to his childhood by eating the ratatouille.
He recalls coming home from a rough day at school and his
mother placing a dish of ratatouille in front of him, which, in
turn, gives him comfort and ease. This recollection causes him
to feel contentment and joy. He has developed a cognitive rela-
tionship with the peasant dish, ratatouille, a dish filled with
umami ingredients such as ripened tomatoes, eggplant, and
caramelized onions.
The pressures of cooking for family and guests can get to all of
us at times. When planning your next dinner at home, consider
using umami-rich ingredients and pairings. Remember to keep it
simple, fresh, and most importantly, keep it umami.
Saira Mohiuddin
is the chef-owner of Spicy Haute Chefing Co.
in Lake in the Hills, Illinois. She offers in-home
halal fine-dining experiences and group cooking classes. Find her on
Facebook at Spicy Haute Chefing Co.
Spring 2014
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