There is a buzzword that has been bandied about rather a lot throughout the foodie twitto-blogosphere over the last few months which has left me, in equal measures, both intrigued and confused. I am quite used to this state of mind as it is an everyday occurrence. But there is something about this concept that is bugging me over and above the usual flotsam and jetsam floating around in my cranium. I am starting to see it here, there, everywhere and every time I do the numbskulls start to hammer the processing unit that is my brain with a large stick, screaming all the while "What does it mean? What does it mean?" It is of course the word umami, Japanese in origin which has been thrust out there to describe the curious proposal of a fifth taste sensation along side the established salt, sweet, sour and bitter. Hoorah! The palate just got an upgrade! But what exactly is this fifth taste? Why its erm flavourful, yummy, tasty, meaty, brothy, delicious, savoury, yes savoury that's it! You know all that kind of stuff and best of all, it now comes in a tube! Yahoo!
Well call me a pedantic eejit if you like but didn't we always have these sensations? I mean don't the original four combine in some way to give us the same fireworks, the mouth-watering experiences you describe? Hasn't it always been like this? You mean my mum has been cooking with this stuff all the time? And who am I talking to anyway?
To be honest, maybe it's the science behind the idea of umami that scares me. You see I am a bit like the peasant farmer character who centuries past who would run screaming from field whenever there was an eclipse. "Aieeee! Bogrore The Mountain Cruncher is eating the sun! Aieeee!". And take what happened today when I read on Wikipedia that "Umami tastes are initiated by these specialized receptors, with subsequent steps involving secretion of neurotransmitters, including adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and serotonin". I tell you, shortly afterwards my eyes rolled back, my mouth dropped open and I collapsed to the floor with a nose bleed. However, after picking myself up half an hour later, I also discovered that umami has been tested on monkeys and showed that it "excites neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, showing spatially-specific characteristics" And I can kind of got some relation to that.
The monkeys I mean.
The long and the short of it is, although I think that some people probably do understand it better than I, like Sig of Scandilicious (check her post for a more academic take on the subject but beware of further nose bleeds) I can't help but think that there is an element of the Emperor's New Clothes about umami. Hell, even the word sounds comical to me. Another Essex-based eejit suggested to me a while ago that it reminded him of Vic Reeves' cry of "UVAVU" from Shooting Stars. With that in mind I have decided to go on an adventure to get to the core of umami, to try to understand it and to reach the next plane of culinary enlightenment. I have lots of things to taste along the way. The hardest part will be trying to get hold of breast milk (yes apparently it is full of umami flavour) but we shall see. Wish me luck.
Ingredient - Marmite