Recently we watched six episodes of a Netflix series titled Chef’s table: Pizza where they describe the culinary excellence of six pizzaioli, three Americans, two Italians and one Japanese. Of course, they completely ignored the fabulous pizza makers of both Argentina and Uruguay where millions of Italians flocked from the 1880s to the 1930s, in one of the greatest human migrations of History. We are the proud descendants of those hardy peasants and workers that build those countries up. And being produced by “Americans” (sic), they failed to acknowledge the origin of Pizza.
Pizza is the perfect example of the kind of foodstuff providing us Umami pleasure. For centuries the Western civilizations recognized four types of taste: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Until a Japanese scientist doing research in Leipzig in 1908 unmasked the mystery that Oriental cuisines had treasured for centuries: a fifth taste. Why did Europe and North America take so long to catch up with the Japanese? Because the recalcitrant colonial mentality of Westerners dismissed “what the chinks or japs eat” as disgusting fare based on strange sauces and fermented fish.
Umami is a taste provided to our palate by glutamate, a chemical compound, when it is associated with 5’ribonucleotides like insoate and guanylate. Japanese were more attuned to that delicate taste because they have used dashi for centuries; it is similar to the Western style soup stock but it is produced from dried seaweed kombu. Kikunae Ikeda developed the scientific concept of Umami when he was doing research on glutamate in the laboratory of Wilhem Ostwald in Leipzig, Germany. He stayed there from 1899 to 1901, doing research on basic elements of food like tomato, asparagus, fermented meats, and cheeses, etc., recognizing the taste of dashi. After extensive research efforts, Ikeda could isolate glutamate from kombu and prepared it in the form of salts of sodium, potassium, and calcium. Glutamate had been isolated from wheat in 1866 by Rithausen, who had found it to be insipid in taste. Thus, is how the infamous monosodium glutamate (MSG) came into being.
Note. This reproduction of Kikunae Ikeda was taken from Wikimedia Images.
In 1913 Shintaro Kodama, a disciple of Ikeda, identified 5 inosinates in dried bonito, a key component in the preparation of dashi; he found that the combination of glutamate and 5’nucleotides like inosinate and guasylate enhanced the intensity of Umami in certain foods. This work had been inspired by the earlier writings of Huizu Miyake, the first Japanese scientifically trained medical doctor who wrote that “good taste promotes the digestion foods.” That is a critical observation that paved the way for the industrial use of glutamate additives in the commercial food industry to generate addiction to it. Glutamate, together with other 70 types of Excitocins, arouse a pleasant excitement in humans by commandeering our Dopaminergic system, the neurological basis of Pleasure and Euphoria. (Sex also excites it) That is why we get so addicted to glutamate-laden tomato sauce, parmesan, prosciutto. Moreover, it is present in great quantities in fermented meats and vegetables. Now the sushi we consume in upscale restaurants is hardly made with freshy prepared rice anymore as they prefer to ferment it for at least one week before using it. Don Julio, one of the best grills of Buenos Aires, only serves aged meats and sausages in its menu. Mother Nature endowed our mothers’ milk with plenty of glutamate, basis of our lifelong bonding with the marvelous creatures that granted the Gift of Life to all of us.
Ikeda made the first scientific presentation of his discovery to his peers in the USA meeting of the International Congress of Applied Chemistry in 1912 with a paper titled “On the taste of the salt of glutamic acid.” But it went largely ignored until a joint meeting of the American Chemical Society and the Chemical Society of Japan in 1979 in Hawaii brought this issue back into its well-deserved public limelight. Julius Maggi, a pioneer of the European food industry, designed appliances in the late nineteenth century to grind peas, beans, lentils, etc., to make nutritious and tasty dehydrated soups so the working women could have a ready meal for their children when they arrived exhausted from their factory jobs. Maggi teamed up with Fridolin Schuler, a physician, to design the first ready-to-made soup based on hydrolysate in the Swiss market in 1886; in 1908 he introduced his still famous soup cubes.
Note. This image of Juius Maggi was taken from Wikimedia Commons.
Some studies have indicated that incorporating the Umami taste in low salt food increases its attractiveness, an important feature for the cuisines of nursing homes to entice older people to try their dishes, even though they use little salt. Moreover, these products increase the salivation of these older people, a key stimulant to eat. Blaylock and Weiner in their book titled Excitocins: the taste that kills claimed that there were scientific studies in animals that showed how the over-excitation of their dopaminergic systems produced neurological damage. However, better structured animal studies and later clinical trials in humans, should be designed to clarify it. As many issues in life, there should be an equilibrium with lessened collateral effects.
Our Roman ancestors used Garum, a mixture of fermented fish to put some savor in those Legionnaires’ rations in their extended warring campaigns in Europe and Asia. It is certainly an inherited taste seared in our genes. We can still remember how our wife at the time (the mother of our children) insolently took a rounded piece of Pecorino cheese (we had bought it in an Asti market to ferment it further) out of our hotel room’s fridge and dumped it in the wastebasket. We know that its strong odor was diffusing around, attracting the attention of the cleaning staff, but that did not excuse her brutal sabotage.
Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.
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