Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Umami, or how I stopped wondering why I love cheese, serrano, and Thai food...

I'll start with a question, a very basic question. How many basic tastes are there?

Until last week I could come up with 4:
  • Salty
  • Sour
  • Sweet
  • Hot
Which was not complete and also wrong. Hotness associated with chili is not a basic taste by definition. The complete taste list looks like this.
  • Salty
  • Sour
  • Sweet
  • Bitter
  • Umami
I am not joking. Umami is a relatively newly discovered tasting capability with humans, and associated with the amino acid glutamic acid, which is the building block of many proteins. however taste comes from the free form or the salt of glutamic acids. It literally means the "delicious taste" in Japanese. It is associated with fermented protein containing products, such as cheese, ham, East Asian Fish Sauce, and as well as vegetables like aspargus, sea weed and tomatoes.

I came across this flavor, when I got interested in Old Roman Cooking. Back in the days, the Romans stored fish in salt, to prevent them from roting. After 4 months the fermenting bacteria would eat all the sugar and break down most of the proteins in fish, leaving them with a delicious sauce they called the Garum. Unfortunately this sauce disappeared suddenly in the 11th century. This tradion continues still, in East Asian cusine, where they ferment fish for longer periods. So I grabbed a Vietnamese sauce, and "softened" it with grape juice. The fish sauce smelled unbelievably like the Gran Padano cheese in my refrigerator. It added a whole new dimension to the nut-cakeI made from an Roman recipe.

Here is a very good link about umami, and this one's for Fish Sauces.

I'll write more on fermentation, and how much we must be thankful to the microorganisms doing it for us in my coming posts...


zeynep said...

Buzdolabinda aylardir dokunulmamis ve bozulmaya yuz tutmus besinlerden yen tatlar cikarma cabalarini cok takdir ettim. Ben de keske deneseydim zamaninda, ahah bi de "deliciousness" diye bi isim uydurmuslar...

Cem Vedat ISIK said...

Abi, iste genelde hazir corbalardaki, bulyonlardaki, monosodium glutamate (MSG)'n olayi bu umami receptor'lerini uyarmak...

Ahmet C. Toker said...

Oyleymis abi ben de sonradan ogrendim. ama bu koku olayi acayip, balik sosu'nun bizim manyas peynir gibi kokmasi. Bu arada bu balik sosunu hersey icin kullanmislar Romalilar, tatlidan salataya. Tavsiye ederim.

thuan said...

you like the vietnamese fish sauce? there is also something similar in saltiness - crab paste -- a purplish, silty paste with a gritty consistency.

adds nicely to traditional noodle soups, but westerners are very revolted by it (mostly the smell)

the "fatty" slippery looking delicious chinese foods are umami'ed the hell out