Did you know that taste in what is known as our ‘gustatory’ system allows us to distinguish between safe and harmful food? And did you also know that there are five specific tastes received by our taste receptors?
Saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sourness and savouriness (also known by the Japanese term umami which translates as ‘delicious’) are the five tastes and only bitterness is seen not to evoke pleasure. Our tongues are covered in thousands of small papillae bumps and within each of these are hundreds of taste buds and between 2000 and 5000 of these are located on the roof, sides and back of the mouth and in the throat. Each taste buds has 50 to 100 taste receptor cells.
Of all of the tastes, umami is perhaps the most interesting and almost mysterious. It can be tasted in cheese and soy sauce and is often found in fermented foods as well as tomatoes, grains and beans. It’s considered to be a fundamental element in many Eastern cuisines and others have used it to add savoury flavour to dishes. Veal stock and fermented fish sauce were used by French chefs and the Romans respectively to add vital savoury elements. Parmesan is probably the most umami ingredient that most of us have in our fridges.
So why is Bolognese sauce with cheese on top, or a cheeseburger with ketchup so good? Because, says Laura Santtini, creator of a umami condiment, when it comes to savoury, “1+1=8”. In the simplest terms, umami actually comes from glutamates and a group of chemicals called ribonucleotides, which also occur naturally in many foods. When you combine ingredients containing these different umami-giving compounds, they enhance one another so the dish packs more flavour points than the sum of its parts. This is why the cooked beef, tomato and cheese in the above examples form a ménage à trois made in heaven.”
It may not necessarily be all that great for you but, a little of what you fancy does you good. Now pass that cheese grater…