Umami: A savoury sensation

A deep dive into the many reasons why the best minds in the business of food and cuisine are obsessed with this fifth taste and exceptional flavouring.

Ever pondered why a dish is always appreciated more with its seasoning? “The reason,” says Chef Kedar Bobde (Executive Chef, Hyatt Regency Mumbai), “is because salt is the only ingredient that can bring together all the other flavourants in a sync that we often identify as the ‘taste’ of the dish. Remove the salt, add it in excess or too little of it, and the dish could turn either drastically inedible or so quizzically indescribable that even the most seasoned palate would find it hard to describe the different facets of the dish. And this includes desserts as well, where a pinch of salt works like a magic potion to enhance the sweetness of not just the sugar but also elevate the sweeter side of rice and other ingredients and lend it this amazing palate play.”

tomato khatta umami
The naturally occurring umami flavour in tomatoes results in lip-smacking deliciousness in every dish using the ingredient, such as the pictured tomato khatta.
Image courtesy Alka Jena

Sodium’s unmatched ability to bind and accentuate flavours not only makes it a key component in cooking today but also is the plausible explanation for the extraordinary popularity of desserts such as salted caramel, with savoury hints. “In fact,” continues Chef Bobde, “salt, rather sodium, in its natural state too does a similar wonder to most vegetables and fruits too, especially berries such as strawberry. The reason that strawberry loses its acute acidic taste and gets sweeter once it ripens – a process that begins with the seeds expanding – is because of the salt present in the fruit that acts as catalyst for the process.”

“The difference between both forms of sodium and salt is,” says culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Chefpreneur, Fabrica By Saby), “that while the former, even in its lesser format of sodium, has a taste; the latter, while not having that characteristic salty taste to identify with (sodium in fruits and vegetables is often identified with a typical funky sourness), does work wonders to make a food delicious – even addictive.”

A great example of this is tomatoes. “When ripened, tomatoes,” says Chef Gorai, “have this nice sour-sweet and something of an extraordinary tart flavour to it. That hard-to-describe tartness in fact is the finest definition of umami, which incidentally disappears when you begin cooking or boiling tomatoes. It finally emerges as this lip-smacking deliciousness that instantly draws you to the food or dish it has been used in.”

Dal dhoka with tomato and tamarind relish umami
Dal dhoka with tomato and tamarind relish. The role of umami flavour profile whether in the main dish or accompaniments is critical.

This explains the immense popularity of tomato ketchup across the world. “The naturally occurring umami and its ability to crank up a dish’s taste quotient,” says Chef Mandar Madav (Executive Chef, Conrad Centennial Singapore), “has been at the helm of most sauces that have gained popularity and place in the culinary world. Even something as devastatingly sour tasting as soy sauce and oyster sauce – the two key flavour-makers in most pan-Asian cuisine.”

Incidentally, umami, which is Japanese for deliciousness, was a term coined in 1901 by Kikunae Ikeda to describe the secret savoury element that gave the seaweed-based dashi soup its amazing taste and transformed it into a preferred stock for many a Japanese dish, including ramen. In fact, Ikeda, who eventually managed to isolate the umami component in seaweed – a crystalised molecule also referred to as amino acid glutamate – in his 1909 paper submitted to the Tokyo Imperial University suggested adding the savoury sensation to the basic taste profile of sweet, salty, bitter and sour. He was also instrumental in extracting the component to create ajinomoto (flavour of essence) and devising a way to mass produce it. “And while the term umami took a few decades to be included in the culinary grammar of the commercial kitchen,” says Chef Gorai, “the innovation of ajinomoto, which most of us know as MSG – short for Mono Sodium Glutamate – caught on like wildfire. In fact, it was the reason why Chinese food with its little tweaks managed to conquer the palates in India, and still remains one of the most popular cuisines when it comes to the restaurant business.”

Fascinatingly, while Ikeda’s innovation of packaging MSG did make it a popular additive in the kitchen for oriental food and others, the use of umami in food has been in existence since ancient times, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotel). He finds most traditional techniques, be it curing, cheese making, making of the flavouring paste using chillies and soya ( a rich source of umami) as different ways in which the fifth savoury sensation was added to the meal.

“Onions, for instance, is another fine source of umami,” elaborates Chef Dewan, “that is often manipulated to get the desired effect in a dish – cook it to translucent and it adds this nice layer of caramel sweetness to a dish. Fry it to golden brown and it ups the savouriness of the dish. This is the reason that often pulao and biryani and even certain meat delicacies either use browned onion as garnish or its paste to add a different layer of flavour to a dish.”

Lau Dalma umami
Traditional Indian dishes such as the pictured Lau Dalma used ingredients such as hing which not only added the umami flavour but also played a crucial role in recalibrating amino acids.
Image courtesy Alka Jena

“Likewise,” says Naga cuisine expert Prescilla Zinyu (founder, Terra Incognita), “is the case with different forms of fermented soya paste, also called Akhuni that are the only forms of flavourant used in many dishes in the Northeast. Soya, a known source of naturally occurring umami, during fermentation, not only takes on this peculiar repulsive aroma and deadly taste but in doing so, aids the reformatting of the amino acid components. Consequently, the molecules become more concentrated and hence a little can add a whole lot of delicious goodness to a dish.”

Zinyu, who uses different forms of soybean paste which she combines with chillies, fat and other flavourants, especially while making pork dishes or stir fried vegetables, calls it the “secret ingredient to delicious Naga food”, and is next only to the cured meat that is another format of umami as well.

asian bowl umami
Kikunae Ikeda managed to isolate the umami component in seaweed and was also instrumental in extracting the component to create ajinomoto, used popularly in pan-Asian cuisine.

“On the mainland, that work,” says Chef Dewan, “has been done by hing or asafoetida for ages now. Another plant-based product whose extraction re-calibrates the amino acid and thus creates almost the same pattern to deliciousness as curing does to meat or soya. Just a pinch of hing added at the right time could make all the difference between a good dal and a masterpiece.”

Parenthetically, the knowledge of umami or the protein block building amino acid was a rather well explored aspect of cooking in ancient India. Both Rasayana Veda and Sushruta Samhita used umami-rich ingredients as part of treatments, thanks to umami’s ability to make food more appealing. Elaborates seasoned Chef Pradeep Tejwani (Chefpeneur, Young Turks), “Given that wellness was at the foundation of our culinary system, dishes were often designed to counter seasonal changes and the many effects it brings with it. This meant a certain month dedicated to bitter foods, others to a whole lot of sourness and saltiness to manage the balance of the circadian rhythm. That’s when ingredients rich in umami were used to lend each dish this ‘craving factor’. This explains why we want vada pav with garlic chutney during rainy season or find the addition of tomatoes and onions in okra so delicious. In fact, the umami nature of most pickles and cheese are the reason for their popularity – and pizza as well.”

Vada pav umami
Wellness is at the foundation of the Indian culinary system, which is why certain ingredients such as garlic chutney in vada pav is an integral part.
Vada Pav poppers image courtesy The White Owl Brewery

“Of course,” continues Chef Tejwani, “fat in food also plays a key role in the taste, but the associative flavour profile is designed through the use of umami.” Which brings us to the question: Why is umami so important? There are many reasons. According to wellness experts, umami’s or the amino acid glutamate’s role in the body is that of a builder, guide and a digestion aiding element. Thanks to that delicious flavour, food that has umami gets broken down faster than others, which, in turn, releases the amino acid glutamate. While the role of salt in food is that of a guide that tells where the protein and energy released will travel in the body, amino acid glutamate works at building these stacks of protein that aid faster digestion, releasing gut friendly probiotics, repairing wear and tear of the stomach, liver and sending the fat component to the brain as fuel and also in reducing the oxidative stress thus providing the feeling of zen.”

A response that most of us define as the feeling that one gets after sampling a really delicious bite, says Chef Mandar, who today is finding different ways to introduce umami into a dish, in his effort to promote “clean eating”.

Madhulika Dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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