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We have become a nation of umami lovers

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.

 

   My theory is that all this changed around 1950. Though we think of the tomato as an Indian ingredient, it wasn’t always so. The tomato was discovered in America and brought to India by Europeans. The food historian K.T. Achaya wrote that tomatoes began to be planted in India around 1850 and did not become part of the Indian diet till decades later.

 

   If you look up old Indian recipe books, you will find no mention of tomatoes. And even when they were introduced into dishes in the early 20th century, they were treated as a source of ‘sourness’.

 

   In fact, the taste of cooked tomatoes and of tomato paste is full of umami. So, when tomatoes entered our pots and pans, they became one of our first sources of umami – even if we did not know what umami was.

 

   Think now of the dishes that laid the foundations of Indian restaurant cuisine in the 1950s. The black dal that Moti Mahal popularised (and which every Indian restaurant now serves) made liberal use of cooked tomatoes, which were not ingredients in the traditional Punjabi recipe. Think also of butter chicken, invented around the same time. That got much of its flavour from cooked tomato and tomato paste.

 

   Why did those dishes spread so quickly all over India?

 

"What is the dominant flavour of soya sauce? What do shiitake mushrooms taste of? What is tomato ketchup full of? You guessed it. Umami."

   Umami.

 

   India was discovering umami.

 

   The next big umami wave came two decades later when Chinese restaurants suddenly spread all over India. What was the overwhelming flavour of Indian Chinese food?

 

   Soya sauce.

 

   Yes, we mixed it with masalas and chilli and other ingredient that were (and are) unknown in China but the defining characteristic of all Indian Chinese food is nearly always soya sauce (and, to some extent, dried shiitake mushrooms). Even a thelawala who is making ‘Chini Noodles’ will throw in a little soya.

 

   Sometimes, at cheaper Chinese places, they will add tomato ketchup to the thick sauces to give them the redness that Indians love.

 

   What is the dominant flavour of soya sauce? What do shiitake mushrooms taste of? What is tomato ketchup full of?

 

   You guessed it. Umami.

 

   The Chinese food explosion in India was the second phase of our discovery of umami.

 

   Then came the third phase.

 

   When Indians eat ‘Italian’, whether it is pasta or pizza, what are the flavours we relate to the most?  It’s nearly always tomato paste and cheese.

 

   What are they full of?

 

   Yes, umami.

 

   Or take the current “sushi explosion”. In essence, it consists of sushi rolls which are dunked into – you guessed it – umami-rich soya sauce.

 

   You see the pattern here?

 

   There is more. Many restaurants will add extra umami in the form of Ajinomoto to the food. It isn’t just Chinese restaurants that do it. Even restaurants that serve Indian food often add MSG to give their dishes an umami heft.

 

   And then there’s the packaged food industry. The Korean-American chef David Chang, who has researched umami flavours, regards ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ as an example of American racism. ‘Chinese Food Syndrome’ is the name given to the bad effects (headaches, tingling sensations, etc.) people allegedly feel after eating Chinese food because of MSG.

 

   In actual fact, MSG is safe for most people except for a tiny proportion who have an intolerance to an excess of MSG. But, says Chang, it is racist to single out Chinese restaurants when the food industry uses MSG across the board in all kinds of products.

 

   So here’s my case; Indian food is not big on umami. But ever since the 1950s, with the popularity of butter chicken, we have discovered umami flavours. Almost every food trend of the last few decades has been predicated on our new found discovery of umami.

 

   Of course, we don’t realise that our favourite foods satisfy an umami craving. Even the restaurateurs who popularise these foods have no idea that umami is the secret to their success. (Though the food industry is much smarter: it knows exactly why it is adding MSG to its products.)

 

   So what’s the taste of India?

 

   Well, spice, of course.

 

   And umami.

 

   Mix spice and umami and you will never ever go wrong in the Indian market: ‘Chinese’ noodles, spicy sushi rolls, butter chicken, gobi manchurian, pasta in tomato sauce, and chilli cheese toast.

 

   We have become a nation of umami lovers. We just don’t recognise it.

 

 

CommentsComments

  • rajeev garg 24 Jun 2018

    Very well written sir, but I think there are only four basic tastes as you said already- Sweet, salty, Bitter and sour. This umami seems to be combination of sweet sour and salty tastes in appropriate amount to be called Tangy, if you taste different types of tomatoes or soya sauce you can have varied taste, though this umami taste has revolutionised Indian cooking by providing tangy food due to mixture of tomatoes and different sauces
    Thanks
    Dr Rajeev Garg
    ludhiana

Posted On: 23 Jun 2018 05:15 PM
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