Monday, February 11, 2008

ay, papi! it's umami.

[This one's been in the hopper for a while. Time to smooth the edges and put it out there. Be forewarned: I'm feeling parenthetical today.]

There is a salad I love to eat that's made at a Neapolitan pizza place. The ingredients seem spare: mixed greens, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and prosciutto in a balsamic vinaigrette. Spare, yes. Delicious? Umami, yes.

Perhaps you've heard about umami. It is a Japanese word meaning "tastiness" or "deliciousness", and is the name that was given to the fifth taste—sweet, sour, bitter, and salty are, of course, the four other long-accepted tastes. Umami has only recently been given due attention, though it was singled out as L- glutamate and named "umami" by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, oh, about 100 years ago.

[Umami is a much more intriguing and sensory term than L-glutamate, don't you think? Unless, maybe, you pronounce it with a sassy Spanish accent: el gloot ah mah tay. But, I digest...]

So, I first learned of umami when reading The Zen of Fish by Trevor Carson (mentioned interesting read—more for the historical kitsch and science-y stuff and much less for the over dramatized stories of the students learning to make sushi). Then I heard this, on National Public Radio. And now for some thoughts on umami.

First, it's great to finally have a name (and to be redundant—what an excellent name!) for the taste sensation formerly known as "yummmmmmmm..."

Second, it's disheartening, though not at all surprising, that with this second coming of umami madness, the taste is increasingly being cheapened, commodified, and utilized as a shortcut for the real deal. Sadly, Ikeda helped this along with his Frankenflavoring, MSG. Most, if not all, of those savory processed foods out there are impostors, masquerading as deliciousness. (There are interesting articles on this in the Guardian, the Science Creative Quarterly, and more recently the Wall Street Journal).

I'm teetering on feeling unknowingly seduced by that pizza place. Is this an "umami bomb" devised to lure me in again and again? Should I feel dirty? Should I care? Makes me think of that song: "If loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right." It is a salad, after all, and not some crappy McDonald's gut bomb. Sounds like I'm trying to rationalize an addiction, doesn't it?

I will end with a tangent. After listening to the piece on public radio, I read Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Johah Lehrer. It's gotten mixed reviews, but before I'd read these I read the book and I liked it. It's an ambitious work that takes on the likes of Whitman, Woolf, Eliot, and C├ęzanne in the context of neuroscience. I can claim ignorance—the umami bit excepted—on most of the content, so my pass lacked the scrutiny a more knowledgeable person might lend. (And again, the panty line that is my lack of knowledge of many things literary and artistic is showing.) Even so, I liked the basic idea that science is not the be all and end all. Artists are not constrained by the scientific process and can sometimes get closer to the ins and outs of perception than conclusions drawn from watching rats in a lab...or fingering skull bumps.


Leila said...

...the panty line that is my lack of knowledge of many things literary and artistic is showing...

Oh my god, that's the best line EVERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!

Cool Ranch Luke said...

Curse you for out-metaphoring me!