An old word dusted off for a new age
As a bit of background, I first heard the word umami in a presentation on the quality of flatfish in the Bering Sea harvest by NOAA research scientist Dr. Diane Green. It had something to do with the quality of flavor as affected by how fish was handled during and after harvest.
I became intrigued, fascinated and then obsessed with learning more about this word, especially when everyone I asked, including Dr. Greene, had so much difficulty explaining it.
I began asking every Japanese person and anyone who spoke Japanese and was acquainted with the culture what his/her understanding of the word was. In Hawaii I had the unique opportunity to sit with a group of Japanese cooking teachers and culinary scholars in an impromptu round table discussion of the word. The discussion was fascinating but no consensus. Just about each person had a different interpretation of umami.
It became increasingly clear that umami has two different meanings:
1. A more recent scientific definition which is translatable and refers to a fifth taste (a savory, pungent meaty taste) or the chemical basis for that taste …msg.
2. An older philosophical /cultural meaning probably rooted in Zen Buddhism or Shinto.
We know sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes. Umami was introduced to describe the qualities of a meaty taste, the same taste induced by monosodium glutamate. My research traced the first use umami as a fifth taste to the marketing of MSG when it was manufactured as a flavor enhancer after Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo discovered the flavor enhancing properties of glutamic acid in 1909. The manufacture of monosodium glutamate (MSG), made at the time from wheat gluten, was patented by the Ajinomoto Corporation of Japan in 1909. Interestingly the name Ajinomoto means essence of taste. The Ajinomoto company promoted the idea of Umami, the fifth taste. to market MSG. MSG was not well-known in the U.S. until it was marketed as the flavor enhancer Accent after the second world war. The FDA rejected umami as the fifth basic taste in the 1950s, categorizing it as a flavor enhancer.
It was the older definition I was intrigued with. The more recent fifth taste meaning kept getting in the way of my understanding of the older meaning.
The older definition of umami does not translate easily, if at all, into English. In attempting to translate umami into English, Japanese will use words like taste, flavor, deliciousness, and essence and then say but that’s not quite it. Most Japanese experience frustration trying to put umami into English.
After seven years of trying to understand the umami concept and talking about it to anyone who would listen I began using it my consulting work. Building on success, at a certain point I felt comfortable enough to teach it, at first within the context of my client relationships with restaurants, supermarket staffs and growers and then in full day seasonal workshops for chefs and food professionals at the Herbfarm and for various organizations like the Les Chaines des Rotisseurs.
Distilling my notes from my conservations with quite a number Japanese I put together a kind of umami manifesto for use as a teaching handout. Not being or speaking Japanese, I’m still not sure if my understanding of umami is consonant with its use in Japanese. Jeffrey Steingarten, award-winning food writer at Vogue and well-schooled in Japanese culture, says it is not.
Some Japanese say I am off-base with what I’ve put together; others tell me they are happy to see this kind of meaning advanced.
Whether or not I have the Japanese sense of umami entirely correct, the concept, as developed, has been well received by chefs like Paul Bertoli, Rick Moonen, Jerry Traunfeld, Greg Atkinson. Michael Tusk, Ron Zimmerman, Danielle Custer, and Peter Drohomyrecky who are happy to have such an approach and way to think about ingredients they use and the food they prepare. Ruth Reichl used the older sense of umami in a New York Times restaurant review. Tom Sietsema has used it in the Washington Post. A number of Seattle writers have used it to describe a sense of perfection in a food.
I asked my students to disregard or suspend the fifth taste definition in favor of the older definition which captures so well a food in its state of grace when it has become all it can become.
Japanese kanji are similar to the Latin roots of many of our words.
The kanji in umami separate into the kanji for beautiful and taste. Beautiful taste.
In the Japanese language, umami is used mostly in the context of food. In a non-food context, a stock market tip with much promise is said to have umami as is a particularly good piece of writing. In these two uses both a sense of promise and quality are conveyed.
In Shinto and Buddhism, each food’s natural flavor, color, shape and aroma are considered a gift from nature to be enjoyed and revered. This combination of qualities can be thought of as a food’s umami.
A food has umami when it has become all that can be, when it is at its peak of quality and fulfillment. Before that point a food has potential for umami. After that point the food has lost it, or in the words of Masa Takayama, owner-chef of Masa in New York, “umami goes away.”
Umami can involve all of the senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste.
Umami wakens positive emotions.
Umami contains promise of pleasurable outcome.
Umami conveys a sense of beauty.
Anticipation enhances umami.
If a food has umami, umami does not exist unless we have the experience and understanding to recognize it.
Seasonality and ripeness are essential elements.
If picked too soon, a food may never achieve umami.
Umami usually implies proximity to the growing area.
Umami can be lost if a food is harvested, prepared or served with neglect or disrespect.
Education, experience and understanding elevate and refine our perception and enjoyment of umami.
Our perception and appreciation of umami are enhanced by occasion and setting, timing and preparation, presentation and service.
With English lacking such a word, the concept of umami gives us a framework to discuss, understand and enjoy perfection in a food, when it has become all it can be, when it has fulfilled itself.
Umami presumes the inherent goodness of foods.
- Jon Rowley, 2009