Throughout most of human history, we have believed that food can only have one (or more) of four flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. According to NPR, Greek philosopher Democritus was a driving force behind these classifications, writing that the shape in which food crumbled in your mouth determined its flavor. Salty food took the shape of isosceles triangle bits. Sweet food particles were “round and large in their atoms,” while sour food was “large in its atoms, but rough [and] angular.” Bitter food, the last flavor identified by Democritus, was “spherical, smooth…and small.”
For thousands of years, scientists and eaters alike believed this ancient thinking, recognizing only these four tastes in food. But that changed in the late 1800s, when chefs and scientists began to notice a flavor in food that didn’t fit into the categories of salty, sweet, sour or bitter. That flavor was identified as glutamate, but was ultimately renamed umami, which roughly translates to “deliciousness” in Japanese.
It took about 100 years for scientists to verify the existence of a fifth taste, but they officially did so in 2002. In honor of Professor Kikunae Ikeda, the Japanese chemist that initially identified that flavor as glutamate, they left the umami nickname in place.
So what exactly is the “umami taste?” Unfortunately, it is tough to define. Umam is a rich, savory flavor. It is not technically salty, but it is best when paired with low-salt foods. It is initially mild, but carries a lasting aftertaste because of its high concentration. It is most commonly thought of in the context of Asian food, and is present in fermented soybeans. Interestingly, human breast milk contains a significant amount of umami flavor, so many of us have been consuming umami since birth!
Umami carries significant benefits for vegans and vegetarians because of its ability to make food more satisfying – it actually sets off endorphins that cause eaters to become more full. Further, it is present in many non-animal products, such as mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, green peppers, spinach, beets and soy sauce, to name a few.
Personally, one of the challenges of a plant-based diet is making vegetarian meals that will fill and satisfy both myself and my meat-eating husband. That has become much easier since discovering the magic of umami. Now, I add a few dashes of soy sauce to nearly every soup and sauce I make, and I try to cook with the vegetables listed above whenever possible.
How do you incorporate umami into your vegan cooking?
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.