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What is umami? It was probably on the tip of your tongue last night, whether you grilled a steak, fixed spaghetti or ordered Chinese take-out. Umami is the taste of protein.
- You can find some great protein-packed beef recipes here.
Umami creates satiety — the feeling that you've eaten enough and that you've eaten the right things. This feeling of satisfaction can help you better control food proportions.
Like the other four basic tastes, umami is notable because it's an element of what makes food enjoyable, and it's always been there. But unlike the other four tastes, umami is a little more subtle and not as evident to folks in this country.
Kasabian says that's partly because for the last 150 years we have been taught there are only four tastes — sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It's also partly because our diet tends to be heavy with fats, dairy products and flavors that mask the umami effect. But all that doesn't mean the umami isn't registering.
“Once you become conscious of it, it's much easier to start picking up,” Zino says, noting that Eastern cultures have a better understanding of the palatability of umami than Western cultures.
Not only do our counterparts in Eastern cultures eat a lighter, more delicate cuisine than ours, they also have been talking about umami for 100 years.
In 1908, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda coined the term umami, which comes from the Japanese word umai, meaning delicious. In his research at Tokyo Imperial University, Kikunae discovered glutamate is the main active ingredient in kombu, and key to its delicious taste. (Kombu is a type of seaweed that's an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine.)
Kikunae went on to patent the manufacture of monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is one of the salt forms of glutamic acid. MSG is commercial flavor enhancer that is widely used in the food industry.
Folks in the U.S. food industry mostly dismissed umami until the late 1990s, when researchers at the University of Miami Medical School isolated separate taste receptor cells in the tongue for detecting umami.
The wine industry was first to respond to this development, Zino says. And the food industry soon followed, led in part by the beef industry, which quickly recognized the importance of umami in recipe and product development.
“The beef industry was really a front runner in discussing umami,” he says.