April 05, 2005


This morning on the the radio show Here and Now I heard Robin Young interviewing John Villani, who was pitching his book "The 100 Best Art Towns in America." I hope that Villani's taste in art and real estate is better than his evaluation of, well, taste...

Here's a transcription of the segment that bothered me:

Robin Young: You write that another uh one of your criteria is a Japanese culinary term umami.
John Villani: Mm hm.
Robin Young: Te- tell us, you know, more about what that means and how you used it.
John Villani: Well, it's a gut feeling. Umami is a- is a sixth sense, if you will, that's applied to uh to tastings of food um and wine.
And what it is is there's a notion that you can sort of feel something happening in the air.
Uh there's something intangible that you really cannot put your finger on. But yet when you do get there and you do get- and you- you do get exposed to this umami feeling, you get a sense that there's a vibe, something happening.

Umami is a Japanese word for a kind of taste, that's true. But just about everything else about this passage is nonsense, as far as I can tell.

For an alternative perspective, here's a quote from I.E.T. de Araujo, M. L. Kringelbach, E. T. Rolls, and P. Hobden, Representation of Umami Taste in the Human Brain, J Neurophysiol 90: 313-319, 2003:

Recently, the taste referred to by the Japanese word umami has come to be recognized as a "fifth taste" ... (after sweet, salt, bitter, and sour; umami captures what is sometimes described as the taste of protein). In fact, multidimensional scaling methods in humans ... have shown that the taste of glutamate [as its sodium salt monosodium glutamate (MSG)] cannot be reduced to any of the other four basic tastes. Specific receptors for glutamate in lingual tissue with taste buds have been also recently found. Umami taste is found in a diversity of foods like fish, meats, milk, tomatoes, and some vegetables, and is produced by the glutamate ion and also by some ribonucleotides (including inosine and guanosine nucleotides), which are present in these foods.

So umami is a "fifth taste", not a "sixth sense"; and it's not "something intangible", but rather a response to certain specific molecules such as glutamates (e.g. MSG) and ribonucelotides (e.g. IMG and GMP).

You can get the same story, along with a little history and some Japanese characters, in the Wikipedia article on Basic Taste:

Savoriness or umami is the name for the taste sensation produced by the free glutamates commonly found in fermented and aged foods. The additive monosodium glutamate (MSG), which was developed as a food additive in 1907 by Kikunae Ikeda, produces a strong umami taste. Umami is also provided by the nucleotides IMP (disodium 5’-inosine monophosphate) and GMP (disodium 5’-guanosine monophosphate). These are naturally present in many protein-rich foods. IMP is present in high concentrations in many foods, including dried Bonito flakes (Used to make Dashi, a japanese broth). GMP is present in high concentration in dried Shiitake mushrooms, used in much of Asian cooking. There is a synergistic effect between MSG, IMP and GMP which together in certain ratios produce a strong umami taste.

Umami is considered basic in Japanese and Chinese cooking, but is not discussed as much in Western cuisine, where it is sometimes referred to as "savory" or "moreish."

The name comes from umami (旨味 or うまみ), the Japanese name for the taste sensation. The characters literally mean "delicious flavour."

In English, the name of the taste is sometimes spelled umame, but umami (which conforms to the romanization standards of Japanese) is much more common, as in Society for Research on Umami Taste (http://www.srut.org/index_e.html).

The same taste is referred to as xiānwèi (鮮味) in Chinese cooking.

Umami taste buds respond specifically to glutamate in the same way that sweet ones respond to sugar. Glutamate binds to a variant of G protein coupled glutamate receptors.

Beyond Young's complicity in Villani's cluelessness, there might be a point here about language and thought. As I understand the history, umami was a traditional Japanese term for a kind of taste that wasn't clearly named in European languages; Kikunae Ikeda figured out in 1907 that umami taste could be stimulated by MSG, just as others have worked out (some of the) chemical underpinnings for sweet, sour, bitter and salty; European languages have happily borrowed the word along with the concept; but most people still don't know what it means.

[Update: Benjamin Zimmer emailed:

Enjoyed the "Umami" post. I see that the Wikipedia article gives a Chinese equivalent for umami (xian1-wei4). I can supply an equivalent in Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia): "gurih". Not much online about the umami-gurih equivalence... I found some Indonesian discussion, and also this poster (in German) from the Centre for General Linguistics, Typology and Universals Research (ZAS) of Berlin: "Wörter des Geschmacks und Geruchs"

There's probably more in "Umami in Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia" by S. Otsuka in _Food Reviews International_ Vol. 14 No.2/3 (1998) (Special Issue: Umami). Found that listed on the website for the Society for Research on Umami Taste.

There's also some discussion of umami and its equivalents in this Linguist List post: http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind9804D&L=linguist&P=R5573

And Ray Girvan has some excellent further discussion in his Apothecary's Drawer Weblog.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 5, 2005 02:40 PM