How Refined is your Palate? Discovering Japanese Umami

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  • When describing food, westerners rely basically on 4 distinct tastes: bitterness, sweetness, saltiness, and sourness. However, there is another type of description for food – umami. While anyone reading this article can easily name foods that are bitter, sweet, salty or sour, umami is a little harder to pin down. Unlike bitterness, sweetness, saltiness, and sourness, there is no English equivalent for describing umami as a flavor.

    What Is Umami?

    Food scientists have accepted the Japanese word “umami” as is which almost adds to the mystery of it. Umami also doesn’t have an easily recognizable flavor, but whether you have realized it or not, umami has most likely been a part of your diet all along. If not, here is why you should include umami-rich foods at your next meal.

    Umami is most closely described as having a savory taste. This savoriness is actually monosodium glutamate or MSG. MSG is an important component of protein, as such, foods rich in protein often contain naturally high levels of MSG like fish, cheese, and meat. Umami can also be found in food with seemingly low amounts of protein like seaweed and fermented goods, for example, kombu and miso. Umami can also be bought and added to bland food to boost its flavor like any other seasoning or spice.

    Umami and MSG

    umami ajinomoto

    In the U.S., there is a rumor that MSG is dangerous to your health and should be avoided. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as “generally safe” but its use remains controversial (according to the Mayo Clinic. However, there has been no study that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are adverse side effects related to consuming MSG (at least The BBC and Yale both think so). In Japan, umami is found in households just as often as salt or pepper, it’s sold under the name “Ajinomoto.”

    Cooking with Umami

    For those who want to try adding a dash of MSG to your next culinary masterpiece, you’ll notice that you will be able to cut the amount of salt you need without losing flavor; happy news for anyone watching their sodium intake. If you’re not sold on additive MSG, increasing your intake of foods that contain naturally occurring MSG in your diet might not only make for a tastier meal but might also make you healthier in general. Besides fish, meat and cheese, yogurt, mushrooms and tomatoes also have naturally occurring umami, all of which are generally believed to have various health benefits.

    However you feel about umami, it has made enough of an impact on the world to earn a place alongside bitterness, sweetness, sourness and saltiness as a flavor. To disregard umami would be like cutting out sweetness or saltiness from your cooking; their removal would make your food a lot less tasty. Make room on your palate for one more flavor and make your food that much better.

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