by Randal Caparoso
I used to think about all the wonderful food and beverage combinations
I've had in my lifecorn chips and coke, chocolate chip cookies
and milk, ahi sashimi and Champagne, roast beef and Cabernet SauvignonI
thought I enjoyed them because various sensations of sweetness,
saltiness, sourness, and even bitterness were coming together in
perfect harmony and balance. Recently I found that it might not
be because of just these four elements of taste; but also because
of another sensation, the fifth element known as umami.
this taste sensation eludes you, don't worry because you are not
alone. The sensation of umami is emphatically less obvious than
sweet, salty, sour and bitter sensations. Umami more often manifests
itself as an overall reaction, or feel of the palate, to certain
foods and beverages. It is not, however, a textural quality (hard,
soft, smooth, crunchy, etc.), but rather a "savory" or
"delicious" sensation. A common demonstration of umami,
for instance, is a pinch of MSG (monosodium glutamate) mixed into
lukewarm water. What the palate feels is a stimulation of saliva,
alerting the tactile senses and giving a mouth-watering effect.
to the Japanese food scientist who made the first formal identification
of umami in the 19th century, umami is one of the two senses (along
with sweetness) that the palate perceives as pleasant. Sensations
of saltiness, sourness, and bitterness, on the other hand, are not
pleasant in themselves, except in the context of other sensations.
there be any further misunderstanding, when we are talking about
umami we are not talking just talking about a food sensation. We
are also talking about actual physical cells, otherwise known as
taste buds, on the tongue that are able to perceive combinations
of amino acids such as MSG. Sugar tastes sweet, salt tastes salty,
and amino acids taste, well, like umami! Very recently, two American
scientists named Charles Zuker and Charles Ryber have identified
these specific taste bud cells as "T1R1" and "T1R3."
perception of amino acids occurs when we taste many types and combinations
of foods and wines, which also contain small amounts (roughly 20
grams per liter) of amino acids, and most notably in complex foods
that give us distinct pleasure. One of the leading exponents of
umami today happens to be a Master of Wine named Tim Hanni. According
to Hanni, only the phenomenon of umami explains the "deliciousness
created by fermenting, curing and preserving" certain foods
such as a well-matured wheel of Italian Parmigiano, dried shiitake
mushrooms, and sweet, vine-ripened tomatoes. It also explains the
earthy, highly restorative powers of dashi (broth made with bonita
flakes and umami-rich dried kelp) when added to Japanese dishes,
the electrical, hot-sweet reaction of sambal (chile paste) when
added to Southeast Asian dishes, and even the blatant appeal of
11 herbs and spices in fried chicken.
surprisingly, it is in Asian cuisinesin which ingredients
and cooking techniques are often very simple, even bland, but very
strong in the sum total of partsthat umami plays a significant
role. That is to say, more so than in American cooking, where quantity
and even excess (i.e., a blood-rare slab of beef, the cream and
sugar in ice cream, the salty crunch of potato chips) hold more
appeal than the subtle interaction of umami in combination with
other taste sensations.
significance of umami when it comes to wine is multifold. It goes
a long way toward explaining why certain winesespecially more
complex and mature winesseem to naturally relate to more foods.
A refined, silken, crisp-yet-soft, fruityyetmulti-spice-scented
Pinot Noir, for instance, seems to do a lot more for wood-grilled
salmon than does a soft, fruity-but-simple, one-dimensional Beaujolais
made from the Gamay grape. The wider range of contrasting sensations
of wines made from Pinot Noir tend to stimulate a more umami-like
effect on the palate. This is why Pinot Noir, as opposed to other
red varietals, often proves to be amazingly simpatico with
oysters, clams, mussels, squid, salt cod and other fish, especially
in bourrides and cioppino. In fact, umami explains the jolt often
experienced by wine-lovers when they first discover how Pinot Noir
goes better with certain seafoods than most white wines!
ago I did a tasting to explore the possibilities of pairing Cabernet
Sauvignonthe thickest, fullest and richest of California's
red wine grapeswith different foods. I tried salads, fish,
game, beef, and even sweet or bitter chocolate desserts with a number
of different Cabernet Sauvignons. These included young and soft
Cabernets, young and hard (high-tannin) Cabernets, simple Cabernets,
complex Cabernets, fruity Cabernets, earthy and leathery Cabernets,
and an older, well-matured Cabernet. Some Cabernet Sauvignons worked
better with certain dishes than others, but the one Cabernet that
seemed to work better than all the others across the board was a
richly matured, smooth and suave ten-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon
made by Silver Oak. Why? I would attribute it to umami-like effects:
the mature, quietly balanced qualities of the wine drawing out more
savory sensations on the palate, and thus allowing it to embrace
a broad range of food sensations.
it comes to food preparations, the significance of umami determines
many of our wine selections. A young, thick, fruity California Cabernet
Sauvignon, for instance, is predictably good with a simple cut of
wood-charred beef. But if you braise beef with a myriad of seasonings
and vegetables and serve it in a complex, natural reduction, a young,
thick, fruity California Cabernet ends up tasting rough and somewhat
belligerent with that dish. On the other hand, an older, earthier,
less fruity but gentle style of Cabernet Sauvignon from France's
Bordeaux region is more likely to taste round and smooth in the
context of braised beef. It ain't the meat, it's the motion.
himself likes to illustrate the effect of umami by citing the way
a squeeze of lemon is used in a well-salted bistecca alla fiorentina,
beef raised and prepared as they do in Tuscany, Italy. It cuts through
the fat and balances the salt of the dish, and then performs double
duty by mellowing out the bitter tannins of young red wines made
from Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese grapes. Salty beef and lemon?
Definitely unorthodox, but a graphic demonstration of umami-related
we don't serve lemon with beef or have access to bistecca in the
U.S., Hanni believes that the best wine for American-raised beef
may very well bebrace yourselfWhite Zinfandel! Why?
Because the slight sweetness and fruity flavors of White Zinfandel
are more likely to soften the impact of wood-grilled beef's fat
and char, thus achieving the flattering effect of umami.
relax, beef- and Cabernet-lovers, you needn't embrace all of the
ramifications of umami. If you prefer your favorite brand of heavy
red wine with fatty beef or lamb, or a lemony, dry white wine with
your fish and other white meats, the important thing is that you
know what you like. Umami, after all, can be as much a state of
mind as an actual taste sensation. And if a combination tastes good,
that's because it is good.