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Taste challenge: Detect umami?

by: , Ketchup is one food with the umami taste.

'I want to know about umami,' my friend Pam Halvorsen said. 'What do you know about it?'

'Ooo, Mommy?' I mused. It took a minute for it to register that she wasn't talking about former First Lady Nancy Reagan, but was asking about umami, the 'fifth taste' element.

People have recognized the presence of umani (pronounced oo-MOM-ee) in cuisines around the world since ancient times. The word and concept are Japanese in origin and many Japanese dishes are rich in umami. Much more subtle than the stronger taste elements, it has only been since the 1980s that umami has been given legitimate status as the fifth element, recognized internationally.

You know the four elements of taste and can identify them easily: Sweet is sweet like cake; sour is sour like lemons; salt is salty; and bitter tastes bitter, like burned coffee.

This new taste element is more difficult to describe. Its flavor is weaker and more elusive than the other stronger elements. Experts agree it has savory qualities but some say its effect appears to go beyond taste and many describe it as being almost spiritual in nature.

Consider the tastes of mature cheese, mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, pizza, foie gras, miso soup, Japanese rice wine, red wine and champagne. Umani can be detected in these foods. How would you describe them?

Some words that come to mind are pungent, earthy, ripe, savory, meaty, brothy, delicious, hearty, essence, satisfying. Hmm. Can you taste 'delicious,' 'hearty' or 'satisfying'? No, but you can definitely experience those qualities and that is where you get a glimpse of the spirituality of umami.

Umani was first isolated from other flavors in 1908, by the Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University. He undertook research to determine the nature of the 'deliciousness' of konbu (kelp) stock, an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine. He succeeded in extracting and identifying the distinctive taste of the amino acid glutamate, and coined the term 'u-mami' meaning 'deliciousnes' to describe its taste.

His discovery led to the first commercial production of monosodium glutamate (MSG), made from natural protein rich foods such as seaweed.

If you recall, a decade or more ago, MSG was used commonly as a flavor enhancer in Chinese takeout foods. It may have enhanced flavors when used sparingly, but too much MSG caused a tingling in the mouth, burning sensations along the back of the neck, tightness of the chest area, nausea, sweating and even palpitations and dehydration. It can also dull other flavors in a dish, as salt would if used in excess. Public outcries of 'no MSG' has reduced its use today.

MSG is not all bad news; it contains about a third of the sodium found in table salt. Professor Edmund Rolls, of Oxford University's Experimental Psychology Department believes MSG can also help control appetite. He says that while we find the umami taste appealing when we are hungry, this diminishes as we become full, and when we are sated we do not find umani nearly as appetizing.

Umami and MSG occur naturally in foods that contain protein and amino acids. Umami flavor is strongest when combined with aromas so it makes sense that cooking can bring out umami. Just allowing foods to ripen, or mature naturally as you would cheese, helps too.

Pam, I have a feeling we've known about umami instinctively, but may not have been aware we were experiencing it. This week, let's take time to taste our food and pay particular attention to the presence of all five taste elements, especially umami.

The recipe this week is not only quick and simple, but, quite frankly, it's common. But it's supposedly loaded with umami. See if you can recognize the taste.

Bon Appetit - Try something new!

Spaghetti with Asparagus and Prosciutto

Serves 4

20 green asparagus spears

8 slices prosciutto

1 ½ cloves garlic, finely chopped

½ red chili, sliced into rings

5 tablespoons olive oil

½ pound spaghetti

salt and pepper

Remove the outer skins from the asparagus, then boil gently in plenty of salted, boiling water. Remove and slice diagonally.

Boil the spaghetti in plenty of salted boiling water, to al dente. Drain and reserve some of the water after draining.

Put the garlic, chili and olive oil in a sauté pan, and heat gently over a low heat until the garlic has browned. Add the ham and the sliced asparagus, and heat gently.

Add about 3 tablespoons of the pasta water to the oil in the pan, stir in the cooked pasta and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve.

Adapted from umamiinfo.com

If you wish more information about umami, visit the Web sites www.umamiinfo.com , archive.oxfordmail.net, and wikipedia.org/wiki/Umami.

Umami is present in many foods including: ketchup n Seaweed n Parmesan cheese n Bonito flakes and fresh tuna n Sardines, dried and fresh n Mackel n Prawns n Oysters n Clams n Beef n Pork n Chicken n Tomatoes n Mushrooms n Potatoes n Soy beans n Sweet Potatoes n Chinese cabbage n Carrots n Green tea

Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at 503-635-8811 and by e-mail at brandall@lakeoswego

review.com .