Savor Big Flavor
Many factors influence the flavor of food and how much you enjoy eating it. The way a food looks or smells, its color or temperature, your hunger level, even your mood, all affect the overall pleasure you get from any meal. But when a food tastes exceptionally good, when the memory of it lingers long after you've savored your last bite, it might have more to do with its umami (oo-MA-mee) flavor than those other factors.
No, umami is not some hard-to-find Japanese ingredient. It's our fifth sense of taste, along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. What sets it apart is its savory, meaty sensation and its complexity. In fact, the word umami is derived from umai, a Japanese word that means delicious or savory.
Only recently has science been able to prove what Asians have understood for centuries: that the brain experiences umami as a unique taste. Our taste buds have receptors that can detect umami flavor just as they have receptors for the other four tastes. Foods that contain a protein called glutamic acid, or free glutamate--meat, seafood, aged cheese, mushrooms, peas, and tomatoes, for instance--are high in umami flavor, as are fermented, cured, and aged foods; concentrated broths and sauces; and mature wines. Slow cooking enhances the glutamates in foods, which explains the depth of flavor in long-simmering soups, stews, and chilies. In dishes where there isn't enough natural umami flavor, Asian cooks have traditionally enhanced their food with monosodium glutamate, a glutamic acid salt better known as MSG.
Umami flavor is the reason aged cheeses are more savory than fresh, cooked tomatoes are richer than raw, and mature wines are fuller tasting than younger varieties. It helps explain why the quality of the ingredients you use can make a difference in the taste of any dish you prepare, and why one cook's pasta sauce tastes better than another's.