I’m trying to recollect the first time I heard of umami. My guess is that it would have been as a teenager through my younger brother Franck, who by the age of twelve was a huge Japano-phile and would use any excuse to be able to wax lyrical about how superior Japanese culture was. If memory serves, it all came to a head one day when I was talking about the evils of monosodium glutamate (MSG).
“You don’t know the first thing about MSG,” my brother shot at me with a condescending look. “Do you, for example, know what umami is?”
“Do tell,” I replied; the sarcasm thinly veiled from my voice.
“Umami is the fifth taste. You have salt, sweet, sour and bitter and then you have umami,” he elucidated, knowingly. “The Japanese have known about it for centuries”.
Franck then proceeded to launch into a detailed explanation. He informed me that civilisations across the world have been enjoying umami flavour for ages and that an early example of this could be found in garum, a fermented rotten fish sauce that the ancient Romans were absolutely bonkers about. Other notable examples are the flavours released by cooked meat (think of a rich beefy broth), parmesan, mushrooms, soy sauce and everyone’s favourite love-to-hate ingredient: marmite.
There is a great paper written by one Jordan Sand called “A History of MSG”. I suggest you Google it. In brief, the paper recounts how the term umami was invented in 1908 by a Japanese scientist called Ikeda Kikunae, who isolated an ingredient in sea kelp and went on to create MSG as a result. In the decades that followed, corporations across the world battled to get the ingredient into our food whether by courting housewives (in Japan), making it a symbol of the people (in Taiwan and China) or simply marketing it to industrial food producers (in the USA). The article describes how the product went out of favour sometime in the late 1960s when people began to get concerned over the additives hidden in their food, and how there has been a recent marketing campaign aimed at separating the concept of naturally-occurring umami from the mass produced white powder.
Personally, I am not utterly averse to the odd bit of MSG here and there. I prefer not to sprinkle it on my food – as is often the case in the far East, but instant noodles would be nothing were it not for the hearty dose of MSG contained therein. My interest in umami, however, lies most strongly in one specific constant in my life: the Bloody Mary, a vodka infused tomato beverage which you simply either love or hate.
It took me years to figure out that umami played an important role when it came to balancing out the savoury, spicy and sweet flavours of a perfect Bloody Mary. What began with a Bloody Bull (that would be a Bloody Mary mixed with beef bouillon) sipped on a trip to Florida in my twenties, mutated over time into an obsession with pancetta (cured Italian bacon) infused vodka (recipe available on demand) and more recently the addition of colatura di alici (a southern Italian reinterpretation of the Roman garum) into the mix. I am constantly on the lookout for new and inventive ways to inject rich umami flavours into my favourite Sunday drink and, as a result, people have commented that I never make the same Bloody Mary twice.
Let it be said that life would be dull without umami. If you don’t believe me come round one of these Sundays and try one of my Bloody Marys.