A New Flavor Bomb

       [image via Tiscali UK]

How many flavors can you taste?
Way back when we were taught that there were four basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. These are the ones you can’t get by combining any others—they’re primary flavors, in the same way that red, yellow, and blue are primary colors.

A few years ago we started hearing about a mysterious 5th flavor known as umami.
Umami is described as a rich, satisfying, mouth-filling, savoriness. It’s that delicious something you enjoy when you eat umami-rich foods like aged beef, mushrooms, soy sauce, and Parmesan cheese, and that something can’t be explained by the four primary flavors.

Umami’s break-through came in 2000 when researchers at the University of Miami identified specific umami receptors on the tongue. That discovery put it in the same category as sweet, sour, salty, and bitter; in other words, we had a genuine, fifth primary flavor. The culinary world was rocked—it was akin to biologists suddenly discovering a third ear on the back of everyone’s head.

Umami is nothing new—just newly embraced by western food scientists. It’s a traditional flavor enhancer for Asian cooking, where it’s concentrated in ingredients like soy sauce, dashi, bean pastes, and oyster sauce. It’s the reason that just a touch of ham can amplify the flavor of pea soup and a mere sprinkle of Parmesan does wonders for a pasta dish.

Just when we were getting used to the idea of a 5th flavor, researchers are honing in on a 6th.
Sort of. Kokumi has no taste. There are distinct kokumi compounds and kokumi receptors on the tongue, so kokumi qualifies as a primary flavor, but on its own it’s flavorless. Kokumi compounds are most plentiful in onions, garlic, cheese, and yeast extract (fish sperm too, but who’s counting); combine them with other ingredients and pow!—it’s a flavor bomb. When the tongue’s kokumi receptors are activated, the kokumi alters other flavors adding a hearty richness and roundness. It deepens the sweetness of sugar and makes savory foods taste more savory.

For the complete story on kokumi science and its culinary potential, you can download the slideshow presented at the 2011 Nordic Workshop in Sensory Science.

 

 

 

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