“You Say Umami, I say Gurih!” You say that, I say this! It’s the same thing and has everything to do with taste. The popular word “Umami” (pronounced u•ma•mi) is not about “your mommy” or any insult but more about yummy! Umami is a Japanese word and literally means ‘savoury deliciousness’. It is often found in fermented or cured foods. “GURIH!” is the Indonesian word I grew up with and exclaimed often by people in my Indo-verse when something tastes exceptionally hearty or savory! A flavor that our pallet experiences with certain foods and is hard to describe. It’s the type of food that makes you say “ MMMMM!” and keeps us coming back for more!
Umami is scientifically proven to be “the fifth taste” (besides sour, salty, bitter and sweet). It’s actually glutamate, which is a type of amino acid found in many things, including cheese, cured meat, beef, seaweed, fish, anchovies, mushrooms, tomato, chicken, corn and tea. When cooked, aged, fermented or ripened, this umami food acquires notable taste.
In Indonesia you will find many Umami-tasting foods, such as tempeh (fermented soy bean cake), tauco (fermented soy bean sauce) and terasi (fermented shrimp paste) – in Malaysia this shrimp paste is called blachen/belachan in Thailand it’s called kapi. This fermented extract of shrimp is despised by some due to its pungent odor or fishy taste. When used in moderation this shrimp paste will hardly be detected. In some foods terasi can be used like a natural MSG to add a certain definition that brings other flavors into sharp focus.
Read on if you want to know more of the history and science behind the Umami bomb aka flavor explosion :
Glutamate has a long history in cooking. Fermented fish sauces, which are rich in glutamate. were used widely in ancient Rome and fermented fish sauces and soy spices have histories going back to the 3rd century in China. Umami was first scientifically identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda a professor’s of the Tokyo Imperial University. He found that glutamate was responsible for the salability of the broth from kombu seaweed. He noticed that the taste of kombu dashi was distinct from sweet, sour, bitter, and salty and named it umami.
When talking glutamate the abbreviation MSG (short for monosodium glutamate) is often used. My earliest recollection of MSG was the use of the words Ve-Tsin or Ayi No Moto, and appeared in my grandmother’s kitchen and also described in her cookbook. This magic taste enhancer has some alleged health implications. Therefore you sometimes see signs at restaurants saying “NO MSG”.
MSG is a common food additive (in Europe known as E621) that is used to enhance the savory, meaty umami flavor of foods. Especially popular in Asian cooking and used in various processed foods in the West. It is derived from the amino acid glutamate, or glutamic acid, which is one of the most abundant amino acids in nature. Chemically, MSG is a white crystalline powder that resembles table salt or sugar. It combines sodium and glutamic acid, known as sodium salt. The glutamic acid in MSG is made by fermenting starches, but there is no chemical difference between the glutamic acid in MSG and that in natural foods.
In short: MSG is the sodium slaw of glutamic acid, an ammonia acid found in your body and most foods. It is a popular food addictive because it enhances flavor.
The descriptions of what umami tastes like are often vague at best. It is describe as subtle and is attributed such distinction as only being recognized by those who pay particular attention to the flavors of what they eat. And, while the umami sensation can’t be created by blending salty, sweet, sour and/or bitter, umami is more recognizable by its ability to round out these flavors.
If you ever end up with a bland dish, the likely issue is that it’s just under-seasoned. Or in other words lacking salt or umami-ness. There are ways to INDONIZE (as I say it) or how to combine and balance flavors in your cooking. That’s for another blog post. Stay tuned.