You may or may not have heard, but there are five basic tastes (things you can sense with your tongue, not with your nose), not four: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami.*
Umami is a fifth taste, discovered either by Escoffier or Professor Kikunae Ikeda. Escoffier went on to invent French cuisine; Professor Ikeda, MSG. Turns out your tongue has receptors for a family of proteins called “glutimates.” Your body uses these things to help run your brain–but too much of it may cause seizures and other neurotransmitter-related problems.
Now, being a foodie, I knew this. But I didn’t really know this. If you handed me a plate of food and asked me whether it tasted umami or not, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But the other day I was eating edamame (baby soybeans) with salt and realized…that buttery taste? It’s umami.
In fact, butter is umami. Milk products are all pretty much umami. Tomatoes? Mushrooms? Umami. Filet mignon? Umami. I’m pretty sure avocadoes are umami, but I can’t find any evidence to back it up. Pork is umami–and cured pork has about ten times the glutimates as uncured pork.
But it’s that buttery taste that runs through all of them–not, literally, butter, because tomatoes don’t taste like butter. But if you can imagine the difference between a supermarket roma tomato and perfectly red tomato out of a garden, that’s umami.
I think those of us in the Western world should stop calling this fifth flavor “umami.” I mean, how vague can you get? No. From now on, let’s get to the meat of the matter and start calling it what it really is–bacony goodness.
*Which translates as “yumminess.”