French fries seem incomplete without ketchup don’t they? There are foods that go extremely well together like chicken wings covered in barbecue sauce or pasta with a marinara sauce. But why does that happen? The secret is umami which is a Japanese word for ‘savoury’ or ‘deliciousness’.
In fact, even babies can identify umami due to the presence of glutamate and sugar in breast milk. Here’s how it works. Our taste buds decide on what should enter our system. The sweet flavours instantly co-relates with energy whereas salty food is the signal to electrolytes essential to the body especially the heart. Sour flavours are the indicator of fruit, vitamin C or even rotten fruit whereas bitterness might raise caution to consumption of poison.
Umami however is a flavour that gives us the indication that the food is delicious. Also, as it develops during the cooking or the fermentation process, it gives the body an indicator that the food is safe for consumption. In fact, celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Marco Pierre White use the umami flavour to bring depth to the dish they are cooking. Few examples include, browning onions and meat prior to slow cooking, a dash of fish sauce or ketchup in a stew and even adding dried porcini or shiitake mushrooms to the stock.
A little history here. This flavour was discovered as monosodium glutamate or better known by its abbreviation, MSG. It was discovered by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 who called it umami. He found this by doing an analysis of the crystals left behind after the dehydration of kombu broth which was made from kelp. He kept on digging deeper into the umami taste till he narrowed it down to amino acid glutamate. After this discovery, he made the acid stable by bringing it to its salt form which is MSG that is sold today as a seasoning.
Though MSG is considered to be unhealthy, but when used with foods like instant noodles that have no nutrients, it is bound to do more harm than good. Like we mentioned earlier that breast milk too has glutamate and so do tomatoes and when paired with sweetness of sugar, it creates the umami flavour in the ketchup. Thus, making it irresistible.