Sunday, June 27, 2010

Thoughts on Umami

Utterly delicious red spaetzle with gorgonzola cheese sauce I had on my birthday at J.J. Prum Estate

As I sit down to a lunch after 10 miles of running this morning (another endorphin-driven post here), I am contemplating the 5th taste: umami.

This is a Japanese term for a certain taste that falls outside of the classic 4 tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter... it's a taste that I would definte as savory, and I've also had it described to me as a protein taste, a taste that humans have craved since prehistory - a natural affinity we have had through the ages that aided our survival - by going for particularly protein-rich foods, we were able to survive better and longer. It has been surmised by some scientists that the taste umami comes from a couple of amino acids (which make up protein), and in particular, the amino acid glutamine or glutamic acid (depending on what form it is in), which is found in the food additive MSG (monosodium glutamate).

So as I chow down my instant noodles (full of MSG I'm sure), I'm thinking of other foods that I like very much that have umami:

* mushrooms

* soy sauce

* aged cheeses

* cured meats (think dry salami)

My personal theory is that fermentation and aging creates and concentrates amino acids, including glutamine, and increase the taste sensation of umami in foods. Fermented foods include soy sauce (fermented soy), miso soup (miso is fermented soy), cheese, beer, wine, bread like sourdough bread. Further aging, like with cheeses, seem to concentrate this taste and make those who like the food go nuts for it.... crave it and pay high prices for it.

Now, the above theory may not be original, but the following, I'm not sure if anyone else has thought of this, but I'm thinking maybe the aging of fine wines also increases the umami in them.

Aromas definitely become more pronounced and interesting in fine wine that is well aged, but isn't there a certain je ne sais quoi in the flavor of aged wines that makes the wine lover go crazy? Could that be the concentrated glutamine amino acid responsible for umami? If I recall correctly from my nutrition book learnin's, fruit is a very poor source of protein, but perhaps there are trace amounts of protein in grapes? Just like there are small amount of antioxidants in grape skins, which become concentrated in winemaking, perhaps the tiny bits of protein in grapes also become concentrated in wine, and then further concentrated with aging?

Things that make you go hmmmmmm.

And mmmm. Ummmmammmi.


Noel DLP said...

Wow, Nancy, 3 posts in 3 days! I learned something new today: umami :)

Nancy Deprez said...

Hi Noel, thanks for the comment. Yes, I had a lot to say after running 9 and 10 miles, I guess.

By the way I couldn't really figure out how to do that like/interesting thing - I looked for it but I couldn't find it...