How we experience our food
“How we experience food is a multi-sensory experience involving taste, feel of the food in our mouths, aroma, and the feasting of out eyes” Prof. Charles Spence, Oxford University
The tongue is covered with thousands of small bumps called papillae, each of which contains hundreds of taste buds. The taste buds are designed to sense chemicals in the mouth. There are between 2,000 and 5,000 tastes on top of the tongue alone. Others are located on the roof, sides and back of the mouth, and in the throat. Each taste bud contains 50 to 100 taste receptor cells. As we chew food, molecules mix with saliva, enter taste pores & interact with the taste receptors. This triggers a nerve impulse which is transmitted to the brain. On average, taste buds live for about 5 days, after which new ones replace them. As we get older, the rate of creation on new taste buds slows, making us less sensitive to tastes.
The sensation of taste includes five established basic tastes: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami. Scientific experiments have proven that these five tastes exist and are distinct from one another.
Umami, history of a separate taste
The umami taste has long been associated with Japanese cuisine and certain ingredients like seaweed/kombu, shiitake mushrooms, bonito flakes, tomatoes, miso etc. These flavours have been part of Japanese cuisine and used by Japanese chefs for centuries. At the start of the 20th century, Japanese scientists isolated the umami taste and demonstrated its uniqueness. After much debate, ‘umami’ was coined as the scientific term to describe this new taste in 1985.
Although the Japanese word ‘umami’ has traditionally referred to the flavour of dashi (a stock which forms the base of Japanese cuisine), the actual concept is more generic and actually describes the synergistic effects between the amino-acid glutamate & natural compounds called ribonucleotides, present in many foods. Today umami is being embraced across the globe for it’s unique culinary advantages.
Which foods are Rich in Umami?
Human breast milk is said to contain roughly the same amount of umami as traditional broths, so our exposure to umami can happen early in life. Many foods we consume daily are rich in umami components, for example asparagus, potatoes, walnuts, chicken. Others develop umami over time, as proteins break down through maturation/aging or fermentation. Most of the strong-flavoured, highly concentrated foods, like anchovies, prosciutto, parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, fish sauce, Marmite, blue cheese, miso are packed with umami (glutamate). All seaweeds offer strong umami flavour.
Why does Umami Make Food More Interesting?
Umami is said to increase the savoury flavour, stimulating salivary flow and adding to the satisfying sensation of food. It can:
- Heighten the flavour of a dish – rounding up texture & flavour
- Contribute to the mouth feel
- Enhance the flavour of ingredients
- Delay palate fatigue – exhaustion of sensory sensitivity
- Promote satiety
Umami interacts differently with other tastes, it can:
- heighten salty taste (allowing dishes with less salt to taste saltier)
- heighten sweet, thus allowing recipes with less sugar to be sweeter
- soften sour
- mask bitter
As umami is better understood, more umami flavours are finding their way into our diets. They help to reduce salt and sugar requirements in prepared foods and also make unprocessed food more interesting and tasty. Read more about the health benefits in the below sources.