Umami Man

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University was thinking about the taste of food: “There is a taste which is common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but which is not one of the four well-known tastes of sweet, sour, bitter and salty.”

It was in 1907 that Professor Ikeda started his experiments to identify the source of this distinctive taste. He knew that it was present in the “broth” made from kombu (a type of seaweed) found in traditional Japanese cuisine. Starting with a tremendous quantity of kombu broth, he succeeded in extracting crystals of glutamic acid, an amino acid, and a building block of protein. 100 grams of dried kombu contain about 1 gram of glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Professor Ikeda found that glutamate had a distinctive taste, different from sweet, sour, bitter and salty, and he named this taste “umami”.

A New Product

Professor Ikeda decided to make a seasoning using his newly-isolated and distinctive-tasting ingredient. To be used as seasoning, glutamic acid had to have some of the same physical characteristics which are found, for example, in sugar and salt: it had to be easily soluble in water but neither absorb humidity nor solidify. Professor Ikeda found that monosodium glutamate had good storage properties and a strong umami or savory taste. It turned out to be an ideal seasoning. Because monosodium glutamate has no smell or specific texture of its own, it can be used in many different dishes where it naturally enhances the original flavor of the food.

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