CHEF DEZ ON COOKING – Umami: The Fifth Taste

Eating is a celebration of the senses. All five of them in fact: taste, smell, sight, touch, and sound. Keeping this in mind, there could be an argument in deciding as to which is the most important sense when it comes to eating. They all play significant roles in the symphony of eating, but “taste” is the one that the majority of people associate with the most when it comes to the enjoyment of their favourite dish or cuisine.

Upon further examination of the “taste” sense, we are able to break it down into four recognizable basic distinctions: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. This dissection however does not capture the taste of such things as steak, potatoes, prawns, asparagus, tuna, and mushrooms for example. In each of these mentioned instances we can recognize that there is a distinct taste to all of these ingredients, but none of them fall into the four previously stated categories of taste. How would you describe the taste of a steak besides using an uncreative term such as “meaty”? This is where umami comes in.

Umami is Japanese for savouriness, but the definition has much more depth than that. Umami is the recognition of a pleasant savoury taste that has been impacted by naturally occurring amino acids in food usually signaling the presence of protein. No combination of sweet, sour, salty or bitter can replicate or mimic the taste of umami, and thus it is a basic taste description all in its own. I like to translate that it represents the heartiness in the taste of something.
The science of taste suggests that we have these five basic taste senses for a reason. Sweet indicates to our body a source of energy and carbohydrates, salty a source of minerals, sour as evidence that something is not ripe, bitter as a signal that a toxin may be present, and umami signifying protein, an important part of human health.

The culinary world can be so enjoyable and is an integral part of our day to day lives, however every day many people eat unconsciously without thinking about the senses that we experience while eating. In fact there are many books and theories about this as the assumption as to why there are increasing numbers in obesity in today’s society.

Whatever the case may be, the next time you lift your fork to your mouth, stop, close your eyes and relish everything each bite offers your awaiting palate. You may just find umami everywhere your appetite takes you.

Dear Chef Dez:

I tried making a beef stew without following a recipe, and it turned out bland and watery. What is the most important thing you can recommend helping me?

Rob M.
Burnaby, BC

Dear Rob,
Other than Browning the beef and making sure you have a good assortment of ingredients to provide a complex taste, I would recommend not adding any water. Water has no flavour and there are so many choices of liquids to add to recipes that do. Depending on what type of dish you are making, I would add wine, beer, broth, or juice instead of water. When water reduces you are left with nothing, but when one of these alternatives are reduced you are left with intensified flavour.

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