Revelation of the 'Umami’!
Updated: Mar 24, 2022
How we found the Fifth taste
I think it has been somewhat past 7 & a few years since the revelation.
Days used to be the same, monotonous... but I was aware, aware of the repetitive lifestyle I had embraced:
- Would wake up in the morning. Not out of discipline or work ethic, but to go to school. Schooling for education, not that it was a priority but…umm…” you gotta do, what you gotta do”. The morning would turn to noon, classes would end with a handful of formal education and an armful of life lessons. Back home, nap, get out, bend it like Beckham (I wish),get back, jump on the 21 inch screen and get to the last part of the daily cycle, Anime -
But I would not want it to change, the monotony. Why? It was a realization I fell upon; when you get aware of the monotony in life, it usually is deemed an undesired element, but not for me, I desired it to stay – an unconventional choice, yes! But not undesired!
Anime played a huge part in it – for me not wanting to shake off the repetitive lifestyle. Anime?? Yes, this is where I found the ‘Fifth taste’.
Ninjas– anime started as an interest in ninjas (Who in the WORLD is not intrigued by NINJAS!!??), it slowly turned into a deep bond with the world of anime. I was following the protagonist with devotion; it was diligence and respect towards the character. His challenges, troubles & his love for food resonated with me.
Wait, before we ease into the story, some context -
“I am a huge foodie! And this proclamation is not to tell you about ‘how to induce small talks in a social gathering’ or to brag about all the cuisines I have had on my palate or to pose like I’m some kind of a food connoisseur. No. But It is to establish the fact that I notice & observe food very closely. In whatever form, shape, size or taste; even if it’s in an animated form, I notice food. I’m like that about food.”
Coming back - The character was a glutton, he would go out to his favourite shop and order a bowl of Ramen. Now, my idea of a bowl of ramen was – a soupy noodle luxury. It looked like it had everything, noodles cooked to sensuous perfection, piping hot soup coating the noodles but liquid enough to drip; boiled eggs looked like I had never had them before, small pieces of juicy meat tender enough to melt, sour veggies crunched with every bite, flavours bursting together – it was like I could taste it with every bite the character took!
Until he said, “Uhmm….u..mamiiii, so umami”, I thought it must be a Japanese taste descriptor for the ramen he just put in his mouth because there was not translation of the word. My trusty subtitles had betrayed me & my head went “???” around the word ?Umami?
‘I thought I could taste food just by imagining it but what is this? What do I do about something I’m not aware of?’
“Googling it” was not something very common during the time – ah the old times. For the next few days, it stuck, the word “UMAMI”.
I would go out to get some noodles every evening and would imagine after every bite, repeating the words, “umami”. Nothing.
It was something I couldn’t put my finger on,
it was a complete foreign term, Japanese to be precise.
It wasn’t pleasant, the feeling, the feeling of not being able to imagine what that ramen would have tasted like, I was missing a puzzle piece called umami. Now as I said, Googling wasn’t common but was available – so I googled “What is umami”- it said “it is a savoury taste, one of the 5 basic tastes…”
What is savoury? Wait “5” basic tastes…fiiive!??.......???....
Weren’t there 4 tastes, (sweet-sour-bitter-salty), thought out loud.
It wasn’t my ego that denied the “5 basic tastes” flashing on the screen, but my confidence stemmed from my love for science which I could proudly boast that I excelled at. But I couldn’t deny the reality in front of me, I never thought an addition of “1” could shatter the entire sense of my educational existence.
I dug deeper & deeper; every other layer of information was like a black hole that pulled me further in
A flurry of information flowed down, to put it into context, it felt the same as if I turn on internet after a week of being away from it and the when notification goes off like…
Ttriing, Ttring, Ttring…
Ttriing, Ttring, Ttring…
Ttriing, Ttring, Ttring…
Ttriing, Ttring, Ttring…
Yes, all sorts of information, barrage of new facts, everything – wanted, unwanted, everything!
Isn’t truth a hard rock to swallow?
It was hard, but I had to admit I was just a frog in some faraway well.
“Time & Information, the essence of their harmony is to strive for evolution & one day become factual truth. But the resulting evolution is all for naught if there is no channel for its introduction. Umami is one such victim.”
Umami was a topic of debate for its inclusion in the basic tastes. The term was first coined in 1908 by a Japanese scientist, a chemist and a professor Kikunae Ikeda, who was thinking about his soup and its peculiar taste, it stuck in his mind. There was something in his soup that did not come under the umbrella of the existing 4 basic tastes. He couldn’t “put his finger on it”. It first felt like a mix of everything but no, that wasn’t it. He analyzed - as a chemist, he had the knowledge and ability to decipher his own puzzled thoughts. He recognized glutamate, a non-essential amino acid was responsible for the taste of certain types of food and this taste was completely different from the 4 basic tastes. He named this new taste, umami – this was a revolution- it was debated for decades until in 1985 it was recognized as the term used for the “Fifth sense of taste”.
But nobody bothered to update it in the school textbooks for us to know - sad reality of the education system. Well, let’s leave that debate for some other day.
’I was amazed, fascinated but more than that I was confused, “What did the soup and the Ninja’s ramen tasted like?” – I already had my plate full but now what was glutamate? – sigh…’
Yes, layers of information –
But like the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says, “If you stare into the abyss for long enough, the abyss stares back at you”. That was what umami had become for me, the abyss. I processed all the information, made notes, filtered, put together everything, finally – I was done. It was the time to jump and shout EUREKA!! But that did not happen, I sat still like a late-night lake in the absence of a breeze. It wasn’t because there was no conclusion or I did not reach an understanding but it was exactly because the end told me that my analogy of being a frog in the well was a complete overstatement, I might not even be a tadpole of the well.
“Umami” is a taste which like a good wine is very hard to describe, but a cooked mushroom, parmesan cheese, meat or a ripe tomato is what umami in varied forms most likely taste like – but there’s also artificial umami, it has been isolated in a pure form and used for cooking - MSG or Mono Sodium Glutamate. They come in crystal form – put 2-3 grain on your tongue to taste umami in its naked form.
There’s a hefty amount of MSG used in a street side Chinese noodle stall around your place. We all have had that tasty noodle, haven’t we? But wasn’t I eating noodles every evening, even saying “umami” while I chowed on it? Why did I not taste umami then? Why couldn’t I figure out what my favourite ninja tasted?
To give you context – you ate sugar but the word “sweet” does not exist, how would you describe the taste of sugar?
I have tasted Umami - WE all have tasted umami, in some form of food but we just never knew it was called umami. I was unaware of its existence until that ninja with his bowl of ramen happened.
‘So, when I first experienced umami, I didn’t know that peculiar taste was called umami. And when I got to know about the word umami, I never knew what it tasted like’
This fun ordeal made me realize that umami is very difficult to decipher – it wraps around other tastes achieving a complete harmony, it is ecstatic, poise, delirious – it subtly makes its presence felt & brightens up the entire dish as a whole and builds with every bite. For me it is not the hero of a dish but the reason behind why the dish it embraces becomes a HERO.
Since then I have encountered umami “n” number of times, be it articles, food shows, food trials, food fest or wine tasting. Umami is a big player in the food & beverage industry, a tricky player which can elevate a dish to a transcendent level or make it inedible after only a single bite. One needs years of experience and repetitive work with it to figure out its essence – yes, it is monotonous, but didn’t I say monotony is not always an undesired element?
And today, I can totally eat a soupy noodle and watch that little ninja boy slurp on his bowl of ramen gasping, “Uhmm….u..mamiiii, so umami” and exactly feel what he is feeling.