Umami means “deliciousness” in Japanese and is the name Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo University gave to what scientists have dubbed "the fifth flavor."
The fifth flavor is commonly found in monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Although the popularity of MSG sank in the United States when it was found to cause headaches, it has never ceased to be a staple ingredient in Asian cuisine. Studies have shown that moderate amounts are safe. The body actually produces glutamate, MSG’s cousin
But it is not only Asian food that contains umami. It can be found, for example, in chicken soup, parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce and mushrooms
Though the original four flavors of sweet, salt, sour, and bitter were identified in ancient Greece, umami (pronounced oo-mah-mee
) was not officially recognized until 1908, although some gastronomists were talking about it in the late 1800s.
Now chefs are making “umami-bombs” or “u-bombs,” dishes exploding with umami.
One motive for such experimentation is that it may provide a way to lower the sodium content of food without sacrificing taste, an issue of increasing importance to a nation troubled by weight gain and its associated problems.
Some nutritionists think it could both counteract the decline in taste that occurs with aging, and improve the diets of children
, who tend to be picky eaters.
"No food is nutritious unless that food is eaten, and no food is eaten unless it tastes good," Chicago nutritionist Jacqueline Marcus said. "And umami makes food taste good."