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Umami - The sense of taste

We all know the real reason we look forward to weddings and parties and get-togethers. Yeah yeah, the emotional angle of enjoying seeing two people come together for life and the idea of socializing is true. But that is just one small part of it. The real reason is FOOD. Ever noticed how all good occasions are marked with a mouth watering and delicious meal? Food has always represented good times.

Take a dish of hot, syrupy and completely sinful jalebis. Biting into it and letting the taste flood over your senses can get you lost in a sea of pleasure. But the grey cells do activate our sense of taste and somewhere amongst the euphoria of pleasure; our senses categorize the jalebis as being ‘sweet’. It is under this principle that our taste buds register different kind of food under different categories; sour, bitter, salty etc. But there is that one elusive flavour we can’t seem to get quite the right word to describe it. That flavour that sets not just one taste bud reeling, but seems to get all of them working overtime. This unexplainable flavour is what is called ‘Umami’.

Science has documented the sense of taste as they do with everything else. Historically speaking, the fact that we have taste senses was acknowledged by Aristotle. His take on tastes were that 8 of them existed. The Chinese recorded 5 different tastes and our very own Indians decided on 6. Ayurveda had them categorized as sweet, sour, astringent, pungent, bitter and salty. From this comes our concept of an ideal meal, where all the 6 different tastes are balanced to produce a table of dishes worthy of a king. So when your senses crave for food at 3 am or any other ungodly hours that we all seem susceptible to, know that it means your previous meal was ‘unbalanced’ in terms of tastes.

The Japanese being foresightful as they are, added another taste to these existing classifications called ‘umami’, a word with its origins in Japanese. ‘Umami’ coined by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda was soon used to describe that elusive flavour of food which is also found in the much talked about monosodium glutamate popularly known as Ajinomoto (after the company that produces it).

The use of Umami in monosodium glutamate is an age old practice and has always been seen in Chinese cooking with no consequences. But studies in the West soon started pointing fingers to it and terming it a dangerous salt and soon it was weaned away from the market. But recent studies have put to rest all these speculations and this salt of the gods have soon made their way back into the market of delicious food and our awaiting taste buds. In recent times, researchers at Monell Centre showed that proteins T1R1 and T1R3 are responsible for the individual differences in the way we experience taste.

The 4 popular and easily remembered tastes are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. These are all single part tastes activating one definite taste bud. But umami beats them all in the race to ecstasy by evoking a combination of taste buds (along with the taste bud that recognizes umami) till one is not entirely too sure of what taste it is that we are enjoying, but at the end of the day definitely remembering the dish fondly. People believe that foods such as mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce, certain wines, cheese etc which are high in umami tastes and when added to food, help even infants enjoy their food and eat it all up and we all know what a task that can be.

The ‘umami’ discovery has given rise to a market of professionals striving to create food rich in its taste to please the palate of the masses. Chefs creating master pieces in umami rich food, experts writing cookbooks on recipes carrying these foods, research done on improving the umami experience; the list dedicated to this subject is exhaustive.

But to cut a long story short, at the end of the day the message that comes across is that eating good food is an experience in itself. The food, the company, the occasion; all to be relished and enjoyed. Let us leave the technicalities of explanation of the tastes and categories to the experts (after all, they are being paid to do so) and just ‘savour’ it as the Japanese wanted us to. So cheers to good food, a good life and never ending umami experiences.

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