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Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Bob Ross » Sat Dec 08, 2007 10:47 am

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent article on umami today; extracts:

To an increasing number of chefs and food-industry insiders, the answer is "umami," dubbed "the fifth taste." First identified by a Japanese scientist a century ago, umami has long been an obscure culinary concept. Hard to describe, it is usually defined as a meaty, savory, satisfying taste.

But now, in the wake of breakthroughs in food science -- and amid a burst of competition between ingredient makers to create new food flavorings -- umami is going mainstream. Chefs including Jean-Georges Vongerichten are offering what they call "umami bombs," dishes that pile on ingredients naturally rich in umami for an explosive taste. Packaged-food companies such as Nestlé, Frito-Lay and Campbell's Soup are trying to ramp up the umami taste in foods like low-sodium soup to make them taste better, while the nation's mushroom farmers are advertising their produce to chefs as an ideal way to get the umami taste.

The food industry is embracing umami as part of an effort to deliver highly flavored foods to consumers while also cutting back on fat, salt, sugar and artificial ingredients. At the same time, more consumers are scrutinizing food labels for chemical-sounding words and unhealthy ingredients.

To understand the taste of umami, imagine a perfectly dressed Caesar salad, redolent of Parmesan cheese, minced anchovies and Worcestershire sauce; or slurping chicken soup; or biting into a slice of pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza. The savory taste of these foods, and the full, tongue-coating sensation they provide, is umami.

While umami is a relatively new concept in this country, it has been well known in parts of Asia for nearly 100 years. It was identified in the early 20th century by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist who coined the name umami (pronounced "oo-MA-mee") using the Japanese term for "deliciousness." He found that foods with the umami taste have a high level of glutamate, an amino acid and a building block of protein. Mr. Ikeda developed and patented a method of making monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a processed additive that adds umami taste to food, much as sugar makes things taste sweet.


********

The article may be particularly useful to home cooks, including not only a couple of very interesting recipes for tomato soup and baked chicken, but some general guidance as well:

The Mushroom Council, a trade group for the mushroom industry, has distributed a report to restaurants about how mushrooms contribute to umami. Titled "Umami: If You've Got It, Flaunt It," it offers instructions in "building the U-bomb," by sautéing mushrooms and adding them to grilled steak.

Some of the biggest promoters of the idea that there are umami-rich alternatives to MSG in many foods we eat are MSG makers themselves. A consortium of MSG manufacturers, led by Ajinomoto, sponsors the Tokyo-based Umami Manufacturers Association. The group hosts conferences about umami and publishes a Web site in English featuring MSG-free umami recipes.

"We are hoping that eventually people will become familiar with why this flavor enhancer is in our food -- well, because it's giving my food the taste that I like," says Kitty Broihier, a consultant for Ajinomoto Food Ingredients, a Chicago-based subsidiary of Ajinomoto. By emphasizing that the glutamate in food is the same as the glutamate in MSG, makers hope to make people think of MSG as a more natural ingredient.

For home cooks, umami can open up an entire pantry of ingredients. Just as a few shakes of salt can improve a dish, a correctly applied dash of cheese, wine or even ketchup can pump up the umami, without overwhelming the dish with the flavor of the added ingredient. Cooks skilled in umami can reduce the fat and salt content of foods without sacrificing flavor. There are several ways to boost the umami taste in a meal (see the accompanying graphic for umami tricks used by top chefs). One is to add ingredients rich in glutamate, such as Parmesan (even a rind tossed into the soup pot deepens flavor) or other types of aged cheese; soy sauce; tomato products such as juice, paste or ketchup; and fish-based sauces (like Worcestershire and Thai fish sauce). Another is to use foods high in certain nucleotides, another compound that contributes to the umami taste. These include many kinds of seafood, mushrooms and meat, especially veal and stocks made from bones.

For a more powerful effect, cooks can combine foods from those two categories. For reasons scientists don't entirely understand, when glutamate is combined with certain nucleotides, the umami effect is magnified.

Finally, cooks can build umami flavor through technique. In general, any process that breaks down protein, including drying, aging, curing and slow cooking, increases umami. This is because glutamate, normally bound up in proteins, is released into a form the tongue can perceive as umami when proteins are broken down, says Chris Loss, a senior culinary scientist at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif."


Link.
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Gary Barlettano » Sat Dec 08, 2007 12:13 pm

Interesting article, Bob. I checked out the ingredient graphic and wasn't all that surprised. I believe we all use these items to enhance our meals. Maybe we just didn't know why.

The catsup and slow cooking both brought a smile to my face. My mother's pot roast recipe was slow cooked and catsup was the "secret ingredient." You couldn't get enough of it!! In addition, this seems to support my personal preference for long cooking to break down a sauce or a soup etc. as opposed to hitting them with an outboard motor and turning them into particles and foam. For me, that long, slow cooking has always produced a more satisfying dish.

I've often reflected on umami and wonder whether it is less a fifth taste and more our body's reaction to eating food which it thinks is good for us, i.e. some primitive instinct.

And I'd write more, but Gracie, my daughter's cat who has recently moved in with me, is sitting on my lap and sticking her nose between my hands as I try to type.
And now what?
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Max Hauser » Sun Dec 09, 2007 7:25 am

I think it's less a "new" concept than a diffused one in the US, like a source of light but out of focus. Those new chefs are focusing it to a point. Without using the name, cooks use umami concepts often. Any kitchen that prepares a meat stock for soups and sauces does it. Any cook who uses cheese, miso, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, yeast extract ("Marmite," "Vegemite" -- what I call the "Western misos"), meats, fish, or mushrooms for flavor enhancement does it.

Repeating from Two months back (maybe the article's author reads this forum! Don't laugh, it happens.)

Anchovies are one of the "umami" ingredients (along with their ancient derivatives like Roman fish sauce -- a modern descendant, plus tamarind, is Worcestershire sauce, not to mention all those southeast-Asian fish sauces). Other umami ingredients are meat stocks, misos, soy sauces, cheeses (Reggiano!), fermented black beans, etc. (Incidentally if a recipe works with one of these ingredients, it often will work with others.) Unless animal in origin, they're often based on fermentation. That produces natural flavor enhancers.* These ingredients bring up flavors, add a "meaty" or "savory" component to a dish, even in small doses.

*If I remember, glutamates, guanylates, inosinates. That's why even if a restaurant adds no MSG, you get it anyway, naturally occurring.
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Bob Ross » Sun Dec 09, 2007 10:13 am

Max, umami has been discussed several times on FLDG, particularly on the "Classic FLDG". I surveyed the area in 2003 based on a Boot Camp I took at the CIA, and came up with this list of umami rich foods:


Umami – caused by the presence of glutamic acid, a taste sensation described as meaty or savory. It occurs naturally in many foods – especially in mothers’ breast milk – “Ooh, Mommy, that tastes good!” Available commercially as Accent. Combining two umami rich foods has a synergistic effect: the umami values of each are not added together but are multiplied by the effect of each.

Umami Rich Foods:

Aged Cheeses
Seafood
Clams, Lobsters and Scallops
Fish stock and sauces
Anchovies
Konbu Seaweed
Many vegetables
Fresh tomatoes
Cooked potatoes
Aged, fermented and cured foods
Dry aged steak
Balsamic vinegar
Soy sauce
Green tea
Shiitake mushrooms
Grapefruit
Breast milk


http://www.myspeakerscorner.com/forum/i ... mid=522237

Randal Caparso had an interesting post on WLP in 2000 focusing on wine and umami rich food pairings: http://www.wineloverspage.com/randysworld/umami.shtml

You can find twenty or more references over the years by searching on umami at http://www.myspeakerscorner.com/forum/search.php?fn=2

I like very much your description of chefs "focusing on it to a point".

Regards, Bob
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by David Creighton » Sun Dec 09, 2007 2:06 pm

gee, bob, i thought - maybe hoped - i'd heard the last of the u word. guess not.
1. for the 'real' tastes - all four of them - there are pure versions. you can taste pure salt, sugar, bitter(a 7% tannin solution works) and tart. so lets taste pure MSG - is it 'delicious'? hmmm well, it gives me a buzz and then a headache; but...... savory? no. satisfying - well, no.
2. a prime example of foods containing the u word is - are you ready - anchovies!!!!??? hated by half the population, but a repository of 'deliciousness'. this should have been a clue that we were being 'put on'.
3. i have been told by native japanese speakers that the u word is not one that even the 'discoverer' ever spoke at a family gathering that included his mother, grandmother or for that matter any cultured woman at all. it is in fact a 'four letter' word. men use it much as in english we would say 'f'in delicious, man'.
4. the process by which an expletive got reified is not clear to me, but that is certainly what happened.
rsvp
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Max Hauser » Sun Dec 09, 2007 7:27 pm

creightond wrote:1. for the 'real' tastes - all four of them - there are pure versions. you can taste pure salt, sugar, bitter(a 7% tannin solution works) and tart.

Like people insisting on talking about the "five senses" when physiologists and others have long mentioned the six basic senses -- including balance, located in the aural labrynth -- but that's not an organ you can poke, or sell things for, therefore it's not important.
creightond wrote:2. a prime example of foods containing the u word is - are you ready - anchovies!!!!??? hated by half the population, but a repository of 'deliciousness'. this should have been a clue that we were being 'put on'.

Hated only so long as they know what they're eating. (Like those Americans happy to stay on the 13th floor of a hotel only if it's relabeled the 14th floor.) I wonder how many people have held forth on the inedibility of anchovies, while they take a bite of Pad Thai, or reach for the Worcestershire ... Like that actor in Sideways (so I hear, not having seen the movie) who dismisses Merlot wines, yet drinks Ch. Cheval-Blanc. (Not having seen the movie I don't know if that was an intentional joke or not, though.)
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Max Hauser » Sun Dec 09, 2007 8:05 pm

Bob Ross wrote:Max, umami has been discussed several times on FLDG, particularly on the "Classic FLDG". I surveyed the area in 2003 ... and came up with this list of umami rich foods ...

I hear you Bob. The subject crops up a lot on food fora in recent years. (Sometimes with skeptical people putting it down, or in some other way trying to force it into their existing perspective -- one on the ERP food forum expressed relief she'd finally found an "exact" word in for it -- don't remember which, I didn't think it fit -- then grumbled why didn't English speakers just translate umami into that word. Like a gringo wanting to translate, say, Médoc wines into "Cabernet" because that "makes more sense" or is more "natural.")

But word, training class, WSJ articles, or no, I believe the shared property of "umami foods" will be very, very intuitive to people who cook a lot and perceptively. Given human appetite for suddenly making concepts fashionable that have been quietly around forever (like Gault and Millau proclaiming "nouvelle cuisine" while other Europeans wryly said I think they've finally discovered Italian cooking) we may cheerfully expect the usual round of Umami books, Umami restaurants, Umami pundits holding court on TV, and Umami specialty sauces, $19.95 with recipes included. Meanwhile home cooks will quietly continue using the tricks experience has taught them to bring up flavors and make a little go a long way.

If you want powerful examples long in print, look at a range of modern Chinese recipes as practiced in 20th-century China (Kenneth Lo published books of these, the books he's respected for, not the other books the Brits razz him for -- Kenneth Lo was the mentor of prominent international Chinese chefs including Martin Yan). 20th century Chinese often couldn't afford meat on the table every day (or month), or fashionable $19.95 sauces (with 96% gross profit margins). You see simple inexpensive ingredients, otherwise bland, brightened up with just a little of this or that, and the this or that tends to be Umami. Braised noodles with celery is a bland dish. Much less so with a hint of dark chicken meat and/or drippings from a roast, and a little soy sauce ...
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Paul Winalski » Mon Dec 10, 2007 2:46 pm

This is nothing new. The food industry is just calling it "umami" now instead of "MSG".

-Paul W.
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Barb Freda » Mon Dec 10, 2007 8:31 pm

Creighton,

The Japanese woman in my office doesn't consider it a swear word at all. She was puzzled as to why anyone would say it was. Could that be some regionalism?

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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by David Creighton » Wed Dec 12, 2007 11:59 am

no idea - interesting question. if she is a native speaker and has heard the word before, what does she suggest for a translation?
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by David Creighton » Wed Dec 12, 2007 12:10 pm

hello max - you can't demonstrate that people would like anchovies by pointing out that they like something that contains anchovies - which seems counter intuitive in any event. liking woosterchire ON steak doesn't mean you'd like anchovies on steak or that you'd like anchovies by themselves or even that you'd like woostershire by itself.

for the record, i'm in favor of balance - whether i'm walking or eating.
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Max Hauser » Wed Dec 12, 2007 1:49 pm

creightond wrote:hello max - you can't demonstrate that people would like anchovies by pointing out that they like something that contains anchovies - which seems counter intuitive in any event.

Greetings creighton, I addressed your specific words on the subject, as posted earlier. Those people are liking the umami which is a principal reason for use of anchovies and anchovy sauces since at least Roman times. As long as they don't know that their flavor enhancement is actually from anchovies. (Just like people content on the 13th floor when it's labeled otherwise.) Ergo, no "put on." Quod erat faciendum.

E pluribus unum.
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by JoePerry » Thu Dec 13, 2007 1:44 am

http://www.kalincellars.com/

Scroll down. Umami has been a Kalin thing for years. :D
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Barb Freda » Thu Dec 13, 2007 9:11 am

She's a native speaker (I think she's only been here about 6 years). She knows it as the culinary term. She thinks whoever said that to you was putting you on.

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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Robin Garr » Thu Dec 13, 2007 9:31 am

Bob Ross wrote:Max, umami has been discussed several times on FLDG, particularly on the "Classic FLDG".


Bob, coming a little late to this intriguing discussion (which I'll reference in today's FoodLetter), in addition to Randy Caparoso's article that you referenced and numerous FLDG threads over the years, I invoked <i>umami</i> in the Nov. 28 <I>Wine Advisor</i> about "two ways to smell," involving the differences between direct nosing and retronasal smell via the palate, coarsely summarizing the whold concept into a sentence. ;)

'<I>Bear in mind that our taste buds - tiny flavor receptors on the tongue and walls of the mouth - are equipped to sense only four or five specific flavors: Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and, somewhat controversially, a fifth taste that the Japanese call "umami," a difficult-to-translate term that falls somewhere in the neighborhood of "meaty" or "savory."</i>'

Since the WSJ didn't write this until early December, they obviously got the idea from me.
:twisted:

More seriously, the earliest reference I can find to it in my articles was in October 2000 and was very likely inspired by discussions with Mr. Caparoso, who wrote his article around that same time.

'<I>You may have seen recent publicity about a fifth taste, one called "umami," a Japanese word that's untranslatable but means something like "meaty," and that's associated with the taste of monosodium glutamate (MSG).</i>'
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Bob Ross » Thu Dec 13, 2007 9:59 am

Thanks, Robin, for filling in the picture of umami on WLP -- as you write, there were many such discussions over the years.

On a somewhat related subject, is there a way to find all of the "Wine Advisor's", other than by searching for key words on the WLP search engine?

Thanks.
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Robin Garr » Thu Dec 13, 2007 10:44 am

Bob Ross wrote:On a somewhat related subject, is there a way to find all of the "Wine Advisor's", other than by searching for key words on the WLP search engine?


Sure, Bob! The <I>Wine Advisor</I> archives, listed in chronological order, have more than 2,000 columns now. They actually spread over about three pages at this point, but you can start here for 2007:
http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/archives.php

Then link back from there to earlier archives - one from about 2003 to 2006, I think, and one from 1999 to 2002. There's also a separate FoodLetter archive.

For future references, you'll also find a link to the current archives in every day's edition, down at the end of the page in the administrative stuff; and from the Wine Advisor and FoodLetter registration pages, which are accessible from the WLP front page and from every edition.
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by David Creighton » Thu Dec 13, 2007 11:33 am

max and others - this umami stuff is all unscientific nonsense. just look at the list of foods supposedly high in it. if you have a list of things high in sweet, tart, bitter or salty - you could actually put beside each the EXACT amount of those tastes in grams per . lets see that umami list with the exact amounts - and lets see how they were measured. who made up that list - how did they do it? it looks like someones list of favorite things - though not mine that's for sure. if you exlained to someone who was not an initiate into the mysteriies of umami, and asked them to create a list - would there be ANY items the same? give someone who has never seen the list, a list of random food items and ask them to check the ones high in umami. are those items the ones they'd check? this is crazy!
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Robin Garr » Thu Dec 13, 2007 11:52 am

creightond wrote:this is crazy!


Why so het up, Dave? ;)

Seriously ... didn't the University of Florida researchers pretty much address these questions in 2000 by proposing (as I understand it) that umami can be quantified by the presence of glutamates and nucleotides in specific foods, and showing that there are in fact human tongue receptors/taste buds specifically tuned for glutamate rather than sweet, sour, salty and bitter?
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Bob Ross » Thu Dec 13, 2007 2:12 pm

"Sure, Bob! The Wine Advisor archives, listed in chronological order, have more than 2,000 columns now. They actually spread over about three pages at this point, but you can start here for 2007: ...."

Thank you Robin.
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by David Creighton » Thu Dec 13, 2007 4:15 pm

well, we will need the references and any subsequent critique by their colleagues will we not?
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Bob Ross » Thu Dec 13, 2007 4:42 pm

The bloggers have been at the WSJ article, and one of the most interesting post by someone called "R" reads:

I find it amazing that in this day and age where it is obvious that we have 6 tastes, described in Ayurveda, (the most ancient system of healing and "knowlege of life", over 7000 years old), that we are absorbed by such ignorance in this country and even Asia!

The 6 tastes are sweet,salty, sour, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Used in this order, it awakens the appetite and allows for proper digestion of food and experience. The combinations of these tastes create the wonderful "deliciousness" experienced by well prepared cooking. I would suggest reading some of the prolific writings of our dear "Mother" Swamini Mayatitananda (formerly Maya Tiwari), who clarifies these concepts brilliantely and the "Umami"--"oh, Mommy"--is the nurturing foods our culture is so yearning for.


I don't find any references to umami in Swamini Mayatitananda's books, but there you are. :)
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Re: Umami at the Wall Street Journal, free access to the article.

by Max Hauser » Fri Dec 14, 2007 6:56 pm

creightond wrote:max and others - this umami stuff is all unscientific nonsense.

I'll leave it to you to break that to the countless cooks and cookbook writers who've independently noticed the principle regardless of a name for it. Larousse Gastronomique, Crown 1961: "Tasty and aromatic substances ... stimulants to the digestive system." The many discussions in print include (IIRC) Alexandre Dumas's cuisine dictionary (1873) and Brillat-Savarin's famous treatise (1826) both of which I could quote to you (in small print) if I may then invoice you for the consulting.

I'd characterize it instead as a principle that preceded and transcends the science -- as so often with cooking. (This from someone with about eight years of university training in sciences.)

creightond wrote:give someone who has never seen the list, a list of random food items and ask them to check the ones high in umami. are those items the ones they'd check?

That'd be me, about 1990. In writing, and long before hearing the word umami. Same items I've mentioned in this thread. QEI.

Addendum: Going still from memory of past reading, those natural but isolatable "flavor enhancers" (glutamates, guanylates, inosinates) occur in animal protein sources, in fermented foods (fermentation I think is one way the chemicals are made industrially), and in certain vegetables long sought for their condiment value. That matches pretty accurately the practical examples that Bob listed.

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