The Secret Of The Restaurant Boom
Even without knowing what it is, Indians have become a nation of umami lovers. Umami is the key to creating popular dishes
I have a theory about why certain kinds of cuisines have taken off in India over the last few decades. My theory explains the current restaurant boom. And it captures an important change in the taste preferences of Indians. Or so I am convinced. The problem is that it is just my own theory. I haven’t read this anywhere. And nor have I met a food scientist who has done any work in this area. But, for what it is worth, here’s my theory, anyway. At the centre of my thesis is umami. For a long time we believed that there were only four primary tastes: salty, sweet, bitter and sour. Then, in 1909, a Japanese scientist announced that he had discovered a fifth taste, which he called umami. Prof Ikeda was the scientist and he was able to link the taste of umami to glutamate (an amino acid).
Unfortunately, unlike the four basic tastes which are easy to sense, umami is subtler and works best when used in combination with other tastes such as saltiness or sweetness. Not only does it have a character of its own, it can also enhance the other basic tastes.
Prof Ikeda found umami in dashi, the basic Japanese stock and later, other scientists listed foods that contained umami. The obvious ones were soya sauce, dried shiitake mushrooms, tomato paste, Parmesan cheese and Marmite. Scientists concluded that umami was more potent in foods that were preserved or fermented. Fresh tomatoes have umami, but the taste is most noticeable when you cook with tomatoes or dry them or make a paste. Similarly, fresh porcini and shiitake mushrooms contain umami but the dried versions have much more. The idea of umami found instant acceptance in the East. The Japanese and Chinese used lots of soya sauce and dried mushrooms so they had no difficulty in understanding what Ikeda had discovered. They were delighted when Prof Ikeda isolated the chemical that caused the taste sensation in umami and worked to stabilise it. Ikeda mixed it with salt and water and created a new compound he called Ajinomoto (or “essence of taste”) which, he patented. All over the Far East – Japan, China, Thailand, Korea etc. – Ajinomoto became an instant success. People began adding a pinch of it to all foods to impart an umami flavour.
While Western foods contained umami, the idea did not find favour with Western scientists, who denied that umami was a basic taste. Their objections were only dismissed relatively recently when researchers found taste receptors for umami on our tongues.
Now, nobody seriously disputes that a) umami is the fifth basic taste and b) that it can enhance many flavours. Manufacturers will routinely add Ajinomoto (or Monosodium Glutamate to use the technical name) to many packaged snack foods across cuisines. Ajinomoto is an additive and therefore, different from naturally occurring glutamate in foods. But it is extracted from natural ingredients and is no more than the concentrated glutamate content of these ingredients. What does all this have to do with us in India? Well, one of the few great cuisines that does not use too many umami flavours is ours. We don’t usually use Parmesan, soya sauce, dried mushrooms, dashi, chicken stock or any of his usual constituents of umami in the Indian kitchen.
So, for centuries, Indians have not enjoyed umami flavours. They have been outside our taste profile.