Many people I have spoken to are not aware that since the mid-1980’s there has been a scientifically recognized 5th taste called umami. Umami is the background “earthy” taste in foods such as mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, and balsamic vinegar, among others. It was first discovered by a Japanese researcher in the early 1900’s but took almost a century for scientists to uncover the receptor sites and amino acid and ribonucleotides that combine to produce the taste, and to recognize it officially.
Umami now joins sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, in the experiential complex that we call “taste”. Lat year, Leisureguy had posted a link to an excellent article on taste in The Scientist. Well worth the short read.
There are now dozens of cookbooks that emphasize cooking that brings out the umami in foods. British chef and cookbook author Laura Santini has created a highly concentrated paste made from high-umami ingredients, as a “flavor bomb” that can be added to any savory dish. She calls this Taste #5 Umami Paste and I bought a few tubes at our local Loblaws.
As an experiment, I used some in my last batch of standard tomato sauce for my homemade pizza. My son (a hyper-taster like his mother), immediately remarked, “Hey Dad, what did you do to the pizza, it tastes even better than usual?”. Of course, I hadn’t told him about the umami paste and the pizza contained the normal ingredients I always use. So at least anecdotally, the paste does seem to boost the flavor of savory dishes.
A couple of nights ago, I went a little nuts while making my slow-cooker goat stew, and put in half a tube of the paste. Oh-oh! Way too salty and strong a flavor. So the rule is: Use very sparingly, no more than a teaspoon in any dish.