The fifth basic taste gains prominence in Western cuisine

In 1908, Tokyo Imperial University professor Kikunae Ikeda identified monosodium glutamate as responsible for a flavor distinct from sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, the classic basic tastes. He found the compound in kombu seaweed; he called it umami (“tasty” in Japanese) and patented it. Monosodium glutamate began to be marketed in 1909 under the brand name Aji-No-Moto, which means “the essence of flavor”. It was produced from vegetable proteins. Currently, biotechnology allows it to be obtained through bacterial fermentation of molasses.


Science and gastronomyMORE INFORMATION

Following the investigation of this new flavor, in 1913, a disciple of Ikeda isolated inosinates from dried bonito. As early as 1957, guanylates were identified from the shiitake mushroom. The sodium salts of inosinic and guanylic acids modulate and enhance the flavor conferred by glutamate. Their most notable effects occur when they are added to food, which is why they are often described, along with glutamate, as “flavor enhancers.” Its use is widespread throughout the world for a wide variety of foods.

In 1968, Robert Ho-Man Kwok, of the US National Foundation for Biomedical Research, after investigating the possible causes of the disorders suffered by some friends during a dinner in a Chinese restaurant, focused his suspicions on the sauce of soy that they were served. He published a letter in The New England Journal of Medicine pointing to glutamate as the cause of the migraines, heart palpitations, cramps and sweats that diners experienced. Very soon, many suspected sufferers rushed to corroborate this affectation, giving it the name “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. Although the Ho-Man Kwok hypothesis was disproved by scientific studies, glutamate has since had a bit of a bad reputation.

Monosodium glutamate is nothing more than the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the 20 amino acids that make up proteins and that our body is capable of synthesizing. It operates on neurons as a neurotransmitter.

Umami is present in a wide variety of foods: mushrooms, Iberian ham, Parmesan cheese and, curiously, breast milk. It is the typical flavor of soy sauce and meat and fish extracts, and the one that explains why the population likes beef, pork and lamb so much. Hence, all projects to obtain “vegetable meats” take it into account.

Fermentations are also related to umami. Think of fermented fish-based preparations like the traditional Swedish surströmming or all the ancient variations of the Japanese ichii.

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