Umami Knows Best (More Food for Thought)

What a brainstorm! I have just discovered why Americans struggle with obesity….it’s all about umami. No, not your mommy, but umami. Umami is the fifth taste sensation, isolated by Kikunae Ikeda, a food scientist at the University of Tokyo, in 1908. The other four taste sensations are; sweet, sour, salt and bitter.


Umami is a Japanese word meaning “savory” or “meaty” and thus applies to the sensation of savoriness—specifically, to the detection of glutamates, which are especially common in meats, cheese and other protein-heavy foods. The action of umami receptors explains why foods treated with monosodium glutamate (MSG) often taste fuller. Inasmuch as it describes the flavor common to savory products such as meat, cheese, and mushrooms, umami is similar to Brillat-Savarin’s concept of osmazome, an early attempt to describe the main flavoring component of meat as extracted in the process of making stock.”

I’ve spent over 20 years in the restaurant business and now teach culinary arts to high school students. You might say that I’ve enjoyed a cheap love affair with food that has been far from monogamous. Embracing the French homage to a life well lived; “Viva la difference!” I have allowed myself to be seduced by cuisines hailing from the haute as well as the street.

Over the years it has been challenging to feign enthusiasm for offerings that were boring or formulaic, yet much in demand by my clientèle. We find these food preparations on the menus of our great national restaurant chains. With few exceptions, this type of food is conservative, inoffensive and unremarkable. It is very safe.

But if you leave the confines of our sprawling cosmopolitan areas you will find foods that challenge the typical house-broken imagination and its domesticated palate. Channel cats, raw beef, crayfish, chitlins, brain sandwiches, sause, fried rattler, pickled pigs feet, barbecued armadillo, Virginia ham, squirrel pie and prairie oysters. Venture beyond the borders of our country and the possibilities are staggering, if not at times frightening. It seems that the Native American was not the only gourmand that ate everything, including the squeal.

But there are culinary treats that are socially acceptable to the American mindset yet fall into the category of being ‘acquired tastes’; caviar, foie gras, raw shellfish, single malt scotches, good wines, grappa, snails, blood sausage, wild mushrooms, truffles, prosciutto, cold smoked salmon, sashimi, over ripe cheeses….delectables that would stimulate the gag reflexes of many an American consumer. I found it to be very amusing as I watched my students screw up the courage to sample Blinis Demidoff, as they saw in the movie “Babette’s Feast” – and like it!

Blini's Demidoff

What is it that the obscure regional favorites of our nation’s backwaters have in common with the commonly held unpalatable fare from abroad? Umami. They are all variously salty, bitter, sweet or sour. Some are spicier than others, some more peppery. Served hot or cold, raw or cooked they all share this distinctive mouth filling quality that the ingenious Japanese have known about for so long.

This aversion to umami on the part of most Americans is in not without chinks in its armor. One reason why ketchup is so popular is that it is full of the glutamates that produce umami. (Funny that those who have allergies to MSG have no problem with this common condiment.) Even more so is good Parmesan cheese, and when combined with other foods high in glutamates (such as tomato sauce and Chianti) the result is far beyond the sum of its parts. Another favorite source of umami is Blue Cheese, but usually cut with mayonnaise and served as a counterpoint to hot sauce. Good chocolate that has not been too adulterated with sugar, milk and lecithin is also high on the umami scale. This all being said, the foods that have the most umami are not the foods that we typically find on the shelves at Super Fresh or Food Lion.

One of the qualities of umami is that it is intense, which is why it is so prevalent among aged cheeses, cold smoked meats and fish, pickled foods and sun dried vegetable and fruits. Bacteria at work in the fermentation process create chemical combinations that result in flavors unique to the host, the bacteria and the terroir. As the water in the food is removed what is left is a higher concentration of this distinctive natural flavoring. This concentration can be so intense, so mouth filling, that little of it is required to sate the appetite of the typical gourmand, occasional gluttonous behavior aside. (No, glutton and gluten are not etymologically related. I looked it up.)

So, since the typical American deliberately removes these intensely flavored foods from his or her diet they tend to eat more of what is aesthetically much less. Quantity is sought to quench the hunger for quality. Could this be one reason why Mediterranean people enjoy ‘fattening’ foods such as cheese, meats and various oils at each meal and yet they seem not to suffer from our dietary afflictions?

What, you may wonder, is an article like this doing on a blog like this? Well here it comes; I will suggest that rampant Protestantism, with its distinctive American puritanical streak, has waged a vicious battle with good food for over 250 years. The weapons of mass digestion employed in this unholy war are despicable and inhumane; tuna casseroles, Jello molds, creamed peas and asparagus, white bread, pasteurized American cheese food, pasteurized everything, potted meat, overcooked pork and fish, mayonnaise, margarine – the list goes on but I can not. It is too painful.

rainbow jello mold

In their attempt to eradicate all things sensual the Puritans in our midst have created a monster in its place. This is an obsession with sugar and carbohydrates that can never satisfy, and a world conquering yet unsavory ‘cuisine’ that threatens to smother the culinary world. Even as we speak the power hungry bureaucrats at the FDA, USDA, AMA and your local health department are conspiring to eradicate those foods that are the most flavorful and perhaps the most healthy. (Why the Europeans, South Americans and Asians are not all dropping dead due to a diet consisting of whole milk cheeses, air dried meats and fish, raw shellfish etc remains a mystery.)

So culinary adventurers everywhere, if you want more out of life than pasteurized cheese product, overcooked meat, faux Peking duck and salty caviar then unite in a common cause. Listen to Umami! And Bon Appetit!


  1. #1 by Christian Beyer on August 13, 2007 - 6:45 am

    Would love to, Richard. There are (or were) a couple of good ones near the Castle. And there are a few in the Columbia area I have been wanting to check out; Aida, Iron Gate, Rooster Cafe, Lelynn’s, Cafe de Paris……

    I hope you don’t mind but I took the liberty of adding a link to your site onto your comment.

  2. #2 by Michael on December 13, 2007 - 8:01 pm

    According to this article, it appears umami has been crowded out of US diets by salt ! And has now re-emerged to take its rightful place at our table.–Fifth-Flavor-Is-Number-One-Priority.html

  3. #3 by Christian on December 13, 2007 - 8:25 pm

    Thanks Michael. Cool site.

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