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Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste

by Ole Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbaek Columbia University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 280 pages
AU$76.00 NZ$80.00
Product Status: In Stock Now
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In the West, we have identified only four basic tastes - sour, sweet, salty, and bitter - that, through skillful combination and technique, create delicious foods. Yet in many parts of East Asia over the past century, an additional flavor has entered the culinary lexicon: umami, a fifth taste impression that is savory, complex, and wholly distinct.

Combining culinary history with recent research into the chemistry, preparation, nutrition, and culture of food, Mouritsen and Styrbaek encapsulate what we know to date about the concept of umami, from ancient times to today. Umami can be found in soup stocks, meat dishes, air-dried ham, shellfish, aged cheeses, mushrooms, and ripe tomatoes, and it can enhance other taste substances to produce a transformative gustatory experience. Researchers have also discovered which substances in foodstuffs bring out umami, a breakthrough that allows any casual cook to prepare delicious and more nutritious meals with less fat, salt, and sugar. The implications of harnessing umami are both sensuous and social, enabling us to become more intimate with the subtleties of human taste while making better food choices for ourselves and our families.

This volume, the product of an ongoing collaboration between a chef and a scientist, won the Danish national Mad+Medier-Prisen (Food and Media Award) in the category of academic food communication.

Prologue: How it all began
What exactly is taste, and why is it important?
The basic tastes: From seven to four to five and possibly many more
Why do we need to be able to taste our food?
There is more to it: Sensory science, taste, smell, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, texture, and chemesthesis
Is there a taste map of the tongue?
Why are some foods more palatable than others?
A few words about proteins, amino acids, nucleotides, nucleic acids, and enzymes
Glutamic acid, glutamate, and the glutamate ion
Glutamic acid and glutamate in our food
How does glutamate taste, and how little is required for us to taste it?
The first four: Sour, sweet, salty, and bitter
The physiology and biochemistry of taste
The interplay between sweet and bitter
Taste receptors: This is how they work
When words fail us: Descriptions of tastes
The fifth taste: What is umami?
Science, soup, and the search for the fifth taste
Glutamic acid and glutamate
What is the meaning of the word umami?
From laboratory to mass production
How MSG is made
A little letter with a huge impact: The 'Chinese restaurant syndrome'
The Japanese discover other umami substances
It all starts with mother's milk
Umami as a global presence
Umami has won acceptance as a distinct taste
And umami is still controversial…
1 + 1 = 8: Gustatory synergy
Amazing interplay: Basal and synergistic umami
Detecting umami synergy on the tongue and in the brain
Japanese dashi: The textbook example of umami synergy
The art of making Japanese dashi
Nordic dashi
Dashi closer to home—a Japanese soup with a Scandinavian twist
Seaweeds enhance the umami in fish
How to make smoked shrimp heads
Many substances interact synergistically with umami
A breakthrough discovery of yet another synergistic substance
The interplay between glutamate and the four classic tastes
A simple taste test: Umami vs. salt
Umami-rich 'foie gras from the sea'
Food pairing and umami
Creating tastes synthetically
Umami: Either as little or as much as you like
Umami from the oceans: Seaweeds, fish, and shellfish
Seaweeds and konbu: The mother lode of umami
A world of konbu in Japan
Fresh fish and shellfish
Cooked fish and shellfish dishes and soups
Umami and the art of killing a fish
A traditional clambake: New England method, Danish ingredients
Everyday umami in ancient Greece and Rome
Fish sauces and fish pastes
Modern garum
Shellfish paste
Oyster sauce
Sushi and fermented fish
Catching katsuo to optimize umami
The hardest foodstuff in the world
Nordic variations: Horrible smells and heavenly tastes
Fish roe
Seven friends, The Compleat Angler, and a pike
Umami from the land: Fungi and plants
Umami from the plant kingdom
Dried fungi
Fermented soybeans
Soy sauce
Production of shoyu
Production of miso
The Asian answer to cheese: Fermented soybean cakes
Black garlic
Shojin ryori: An old tradition with a modern presence
The enlightened kitchen
Green tea
Umami from land animals: Meat, eggs, and dairy products
The animal kingdom delivers umami in spades
Homo sapiens is a cook
Preserving meats in the traditional ways
Air-dried hams
Salted beef: Pastrami and corned beef
Bacon and sausages
Dairy products
Blue cheeses
Aged, dried, and hard cheeses
Eggs and mayonnaise
Harry's crème from Harry's Bar
Umami: The secret behind the humble soup stock
Soup is umami
Osmazome and The Physiology of Taste
Amino acids in soup stocks
A real find: A dashi bar
The taste of a beef stock
Ready-made umami
Knorr and Maggi: European umami pioneers
Making the most of umami
MSG as a food additive
Other commercial sources of umami
Hydrolyzed protein
Umami in a jar
Yeast extract
Nutritional yeast
More sources of umami for vegans
Bagna càuda
Worcestershire sauce
Umami in a tube
Twelve easy ways to add umami
Quintessentially Danish: Brown gravy, medisterpølse, and beef patties
Slow cooking: The secret of more umami
Ratatouille and brandade
This is why fast food tastes so good
Green salads and raw vegetables
Umami in dishes made with small fowl
Cooked potatoes: Nothing could be simpler
Rice and sake
Umami in sweets
Mirin is a sweet rice wine with umami
Umami and wellness
Umami and MSG: Food without 'chemicals'
Umami satisfies the appetite
Why does umami make us feel full? The 'brain' in the stomach
Umami for a sick and aging population
Umami for life
Epilogue: Umami has come to stay
Technical and scientific details
Umami and the first glutamate receptor
Yet another receptor for umami
Umami synergy
The taste of amino acids
Taste thresholds for umami
Content of glutamate and 5'-ribonucleotides in different foods
Illustration credits
The people behind the book

Potato water dashi with smoked shrimp heads
Monkfish liver au gratin with crabmeat and vegetables
Pearled spelt, beets, and lobster
Crab soup
Clambake in a pot
Patina de pisciculis
Quick-and-easy garum
Smoked quick-and-easy garum
Seriously old-fashioned sourdough rye bread
Anchovies, grilled onions, sourdough bread, pata negra ham, and mushrooms
Deep-fried eggplants with miso (nasu dengaku)
White asparagus in miso with oysters, cucumber oil, and small fish
Grilled shojin kabayaki: 'fried eel' made from lotus root
Baked monkfish liver with raspberries and peanuts
Slow-roasted sauce with tomatoes, root vegetables, and herbs
Fried mullet with baked grape tomatoes, marinated sago pearls, and black garlic
Mushrooms, foie gras, and mushroom essence
Parmesan biscuits with bacon and yeast flakes
Harry's crème
Chicken bouillon
Green pea soup with scallops and seaweed
Dressing with nutritional yeast
Eggplant gratinée with garlic, anchovies, and nutritional yeast
Oysters au gratin with a crust of nutritional yeast and smoked shrimp head powder
Bagna càuda
Old-fashioned Danish medisterpølse
Beef patties, Danish style
Chicken Marengo
Beef estofado
Sicilian ratatouille
Brandade with air-dried ham and green peas
Three-day pizza with umami—not really a 'fast food'
Quail pâté
Oxtails braised in wheat beer
Umami sorbet with maccha and tomato
White chocolate cream, black sesame seeds, Roquefort, and brioche with nutritional yeast

An engaging read... Umami is at once a scientific treatise, cultural history, unique collection of recipes, and handsome coffee-table--or for that matter, kitchen-table--book.
Ole G. Mouritsen is a distinguished scientist and professor of biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark. His books include Sushi: Food for the Eye, the Body, and the Soul and Seaweeds: Edible, Available, and Sustainable.

Klavs Styrbaek is a chef who, for more than twenty years, has owned and run the highly regarded Restaurant Kvaegtorvet (The Cattle Market) in Odense, Denmark, and is a passionate advocate for the renewal of classical Danish cuisine.
Mariela Johansen has Danish roots, lives in Canada, and holds an MA in humanities.

Jonas Drotner Mouritsen is a graphic designer and owns the design company Chromascope ( His movie projects have won several international awards.