Salty. Bitter. Sweet. Sour.
These are the tastes traditionally understood to describe the flavor receptors of the tongue and, consequently, the available range of culinary experience. However, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, there is one more. The fifth taste.
Even if the name is strange, the savory character of the flavor is not. Parmesan cheese. Soy sauce. Roasted meat. Sautéed mushrooms. Dry wine. All of these are characterized by umami, a taste identified a century ago by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist who named it with the term in his language for “deliciousness.” Nevertheless, it was only in 2000 that scientists at the University of Miami identified tongue receptors having no other function than to recognize that flavor.
In contrast to the instant but fleeting pleasure of sweet or salty, umami provides a taste sensation that yields lingering satisfaction. The discovery that foods with umami possess high levels of glutamate, an amino acid that is a building block of protein, led Mr. Ikeda to develop and patent his method of producing monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
Perhaps it was MSG’s reputation for contributing to a variety of health ailments that caused umami to go overlooked for so long. However, new studies indicate that a moderate intake of MSG poses no concern for most consumers, according to Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The food industry has responded with gusto. Gourmet chefs and manufacturers of mass-produced, packaged foods are searching for ways to incorporate umami into their products. However, not for the first time, Jewish tradition is way ahead of the curve.
The sages teach that, because each seasonal festival is a time of joy, the menu of every holiday meal should include meat and wine in order to contribute to the festive atmosphere. Says the Talmud: there is no joy without meat and wine — both of which are among the classic sources of umami, which is produced by drying, aging, curing, and slow cooking.
Apparently, the sages recognized that the joy of the festivals could be enhanced not only with good food, but with the right kind of good food. Cake and pie may be delectable and filling, but meat and wine satisfy a physiological need and produce a feeling of contentment that helps foster the proper mood for helping us appreciate the spiritual distinctiveness of the holidays.
Just as our craving for sweets is hardwired, so is our attraction to umami. According to one study, babies are more likely to finish foods that contain glutamate. Paradoxically, the difficulty we have defining umami suggests a subtlety associated with acquired taste. Where children respond naturally and immediately to sugar and salt, only a sophisticated palate will appreciated the savory quality of slow-cooked meat or well-aged wine.
Perhaps this offers a clue to why the sages referred to the Torah itself as the “spice of life.” For the pleasure-seeker who thrives upon instant gratification, the notion of acquired taste must be as incomprehensible as smothering his French fries with chocolate syrup. Indeed, an approach to life defined by mere moments of sensory buzz is the equivalent of a dietary menu comprising little more than fries and sundaes. The pleasure fades instantly away and leaves one perpetually hungry for more.
The reward for training one’s palate to enjoy the finer things is an enjoyment of the finer things. This applies equally to the palate of one’s tongue and to the palate of one’s character. Perhaps Jewish culture’s seeming obsession with food reflects a deeper appreciation that true happiness derives not from momentary physical stimulation but from true inner satisfaction. Good taste extends beyond what tastes good. And it extends beyond fashion as well. The cultivated ethical palate appreciates that the finest things in life come from a commitment to doing what is right and developing oneself into the best person one can become.
Aside from the insights of the sages revealed through the maturation of science and cooking, there is an even more obvious connection between umami and the divinity of Jewish wisdom. Of all the dishes that contain glutamate, there is one that appears on every list that attempts to describe umami’s savory and satisfying character: Chicken soup.
What could be more Jewish?