Guardian Weekend – Part of a series of 6 articles on taste and cooking with co-author Peter Barham
Every two years, a group of leading chefs and food writers and a few lucky scientists such as ourselves get together in the Sicilian mountain village of Erice to consider the serious science of haute cuisine. This year, we spent much of our time discussing the “wow!” factor.
The Japanese call it umami (pronounced to rhyme with tsunami). A tsunami is a devastating ocean wave. Umami produces a devastating wave of flavour. Food writers serving on taste panels describe it by calling a dish “rich” or “well-rounded” or “full-bodied” or “savoury” or even simply “yummy”. Only in the last two years, though, have scientists at the University of Miami shown that umami is a real extra taste factor, quite distinct from the traditional categories of sweet, salty, bitter and sour.
Taste, incidentally, refers only to the perceptions of food experienced by the tongue. The whole experience of eating, incorporating the experiences of aroma, mouthfeel, and so on, needs a different word. The French call it gout, a word that has no exact English equivalent. The closest that we could come up with in Erice was flavour, and there is, of course, an infinite variety of flavours.
To experience the difference between taste and flavour, try eating some smoky bacon or other aromatically tinged crisps, first normally and then with your nose firmly pinched shut. With the aroma gone, the flavour also goes, and what you are left with is taste – in this case, the taste of salt.
We had great fun working with the chefs in the experimental kitchen at Erice to test out ideas about the concept of umami. Here’s one experiment that you can try for yourselves to experience the umami effect in Parmesan cheese.
First, make sure that you have the right Parmesan cheese, the sort that chefs use. Not the pre-ground powder in a plastic or cardboard packet, but the real thing from Lombardy or the Romagna, made from skimmed milk and ripened for four long years until it becomes as hard as a rock. Grate it very finely into two small piles, each big enough to fill a teaspoon. Put one of the piles into a glass full of water and let it soak for an hour or so. Then filter off the water (the paper cone from a filter coffee machine does an excellent job) and let your grated Parmesan dry.
Now all you need to do is to compare the tastes of the two piles of Parmesan. If you want to be really scientific, ask someone else to do the comparison, someone who doesn’t know that one of the piles has been treated. It is likely that they will much prefer the untreated cheese, but won’t be able to say quite why.
The answer is not that you have washed the flavour components out of the treated cheese. All of the flavour is still there, bound up in the oily part of the cheese. What you have washed out, though, is the “wow!” factor.
If you look closely at a broken piece of Parmesan cheese you can actually see the “wow!” factor, in the form of white specks dotted through the cheese. Those specks are crystals of monosodium glutamate, a natural ingredient of the cheese that occurs at levels of up to 5%. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is soluble in water, which is why you were able to wash most of it away in your experiment. It is also the chemical responsible for the umami effect.
You have probably heard of MSG as an additive in Chinese cooking, responsible for the (mythical) “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. In fact, MSG is the most natural of natural food ingredients. In chemical terms, it is just one form of glutamic acid, and glutamic acid is one of the small number of compounds that make up the essential protein building blocks of our bodies. Our bodies are full of it, and any that we take in, either as an additive or as a natural component of foods like meat and Parmesan cheese, is simply added to the general pool without distinction of origin.
Just because meat has glutamate-containing proteins doesn’t mean that it can produce the umami effect. That effect needs MSG in its free form, not tied up as glutamic acid within the structure of a protein. But you don’t have to add pure MSG to your recipes to produce the effect, since MSG occurs naturally in many fresh food ingredients. Tomatoes, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, milk and mackerel are particularly rich in it, and it is no coincidence that many savoury recipes contain one or more of these ingredients. Try some of Jeremy Lee’s recipes containing these ingredients and you will see exactly what we mean by the “wow!” factor.
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