The "umami" taste

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 2, 2008

I was just listening to one of Robert Krulwich’s many delightful podcasts on science (Krulwich on Science — if you haven’t listened to it you must) and he was explaining how the “umami” taste was discovered. It turns out that for years and years scientists accepted the mantra that there are four basic tastes — sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. These are the ones that we learned in school (or at least I did, but maybe I’m dating myself here). Then this French chef came along — Auguste Escoffier — and turned it all on its head. He made this delicious soup stock by boiling veal bones for hours. He created a revolution in french cooking, concocting recipes which were, essentially, delicious. But the problem was that the deliciousness of much of his cooking, in particularly his veal stock, didn’t adhere to any of those four flavors. He revolutionized cooking, but not chemistry.

However, a Japanese chemist noticed the same thing, but with respect to the flavors of a traditional japanese soup. He had the means at his disposal to analyze this flavor, however. It turns out that the key ingredient of the veal stock and of the japanese soup (and of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, and meat) is glutamate. That’s what makes MSG (monosodium glutamate) taste so good too. He called it “umami” or “yummy” in japanese.

One thing that’s really interesting to me about this story is how difficult it can be for us to describe our experience until we have the verbal categorization to attack it with. I guess this would go in the same category as ye olde “eskimoes have umpteen-million words for snow” argument (which I hear is somewhat of a myth). Are people so tied to organizational schemas that we can’t even recognize an experience until we’ve put words to it?

The other thing that struck me is something that Krulwich mentions in the podcast, which is that this is yet another example of art leading science. A master chef is an artist, yes, and he recognized our true experience more honestly than the scientists of the day, who accepted the commonly held view without too much question. This harkens back to my previous post, Why art?

Krulwich writes:

But because artists are so good at describing what it’s like to experience the world, so intent on delivering the truth of what it feels like to be alive, so intuitive, in each of these eight cases, the artists learn something that the scientists don’t discover until years later.

Art, Jonah reminds us, describes the same world that science does; art just does it by a different route. And sometimes, more often than you would suppose, the artists get there first.

Here’s the link to Krulwich’s story on NPR.

{ 3 comments }

DavidCL June 3, 2008 at 5:38 am

Another taste-related item I’ve heard about is the “supertaster” trait that some people have. I’ve idly wondered how this relates to the four basic tastes…

I haven’t listened to Robert Krulwich’s podcast, but I’m a big fan of Radio Lab, the WNYC show he co-hosts (which is also available by podcast). There are so many great podcasts to listen to!

Dave June 3, 2008 at 6:27 am

“but maybe I’m dating myself here”

I thought you were dating me?

And, yes, according to any modern linguistic research I’ve read, the Eskimo words for snow thing is a complete myth. According to Wikipedia , the two main fallacies with the myth are the counting of all Eskimo-Aleut languages as ‘Eskimo’, and not taking into account the fact that Eskimo languages, much like German, are polysynthetic, allowing you to make up a new word by stringing together descriptive prefixes and suffixes onto a root word.

So, many of those “words” for snow are just phrases like “covered in a new frost”, compacted into a single word. So, strictly speaking, the myth may have some basis in reality, but it doesn’t mean that the Eskimoes have a completely different way of thinking about snow than we do, which is the hypothesis that the myth claims to prove.

sciencegeekgirl June 3, 2008 at 8:15 am

Yes, WNYC Radio Lab is the most fabulous show on the planet. If anyone hasn’t listened to it (David S., I’ve been waiting until you’re less busy to load you down with episodes to listen to). Krulwich on Science are nice short 10 minute snips, edited in much the same inimitable fashion.

I haven’t heard of supertasters. The wikipedia article enlightened me, as wikipedia articles are so wont to do. How interesting, someone who tastes with intensity!

And I’m glad to hear the story behind the darned snow myth. Why are do so many good stories turn out to be myths (like Polar Bear Fur is Fiber Optic, see http://sciencegeekgirl.com/2007/09/16/polar-bear-fur/ or Glass is a Liquid, see http://sciencegeekgirl.com/2007/09/07/liquid-glass/).

The Eskimo myth is supposed to be the canonical example of the Whorfian Hypothesis, that our language affects our thought instead of vice versa, which you can read more about here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapir-Whorf_hypothesis

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