Sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami are the five basic tastes. The term umami originates in Japan; it’s probably close to savoury. Recognizing sweet or bitter is something we learn as a child, recognizing umami is not something we have learned and that’s perhaps why some people in the past argued that umami is not a taste in its own right. It’s now clear that we have taste receptors that respond to the components that make umami.
Danish professor emeritus in biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark, Ole G. Mouritsen, writes about the gastronomical, historical, scientific and cultural aspects of umami in his book Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste (available via your local bookstore or the well-known channels for approximately 40 US$). He also published cookbooks, for instance about seaweeds. Several scientific studies were conducted, trying to unravel the secrets of umami. One of the findings is that umami is the result of two components: glutamate and nucleotide. Bringing them together creates synergy and the umami taste is amplified.
Classic Japanese dashi is a combination of kombu (seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes). Kombu contains amino acid glutamate and Katsuobushi contains nucleotides inosinate and guanylate. Together they create a synergy, and the result is the clear taste of umami in dashi.
Same story for oysters and champagne. The oysters contain both glutamate and nucleotides (meaning that they are full of umami) and the champagne, due to the way it’s produced, contains glutamate, making oysters and champagne into a very tasty, umami rich combination.
Also the same story for tomatoes (amino acid glutamate) and beef (inosinate). Combining them should create the beautiful synergy of umami.
Enough chemistry for one day. We decided to prepare Ragù Napoletano. It is one of the great dishes of Italy, or to be more precise of Campania. It is a combination of rolled up well marbled beef (rump cap, rump tail), an intense tomato sauce and hours of careful slow cooking and reducing.
The result is a two-course meal: the sauce is served with pasta as a starter and the sliced meat with some sauce and vegetables as a main.
Will you able to taste the umami? The answer is yes, absolutely, especially when you prepare the dish one or two days ahead.
Recipe for Ragù Napoletano in our next post.