Thanksgiving is perhaps the quintessential American holiday. The fourth Thursday in November provides a moment to reflect on the good fortune of the past year and a chance to share a meal with friends and family. Iconic images of Thanksgiving place the turkey, at the center of the feast, as well as corn, pumpkins, and other indigenous species.
Unlike holidays like Valentines Day and Halloween, the flavors of Thanksgiving are savory rather than sweet. And just as there is a history to the Thanksgiving menu, so too is there a history to the holiday’s primary taste: umami.
Most Americans are taught that there are four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. However, more than a century ago, the Japanese chemist Kikunea Ikeda posited a fifth primary taste, which he called umami. In an effort to describe this new taste in 1912, he suggested:
An attentive taster will find…something common in the complicated taste of asparagus, tomato, cheese, and meat, which is quite peculiar and cannot be classified under any of the above mentioned qualities sweet, sour, bitter, or briny. It is usually so faint and overshadowed by other stronger tastes, that it is often difficult to recognize it unless the attention is specially directed toward it.
The existence of umami as a basic taste like sweet, sour, salty, or bitter may seem new to the American palate. But in my research on US food systems in the 20th century, I’ve found that the recognition of umami followed the spread of Asian cuisine in the US decades ago.
A taste is born
In order to better explain this subtle taste, Ikeda attempted to describe the difference between umami as it is found in food and its pure form. By way of analogy, he explained:
Had we nothing sweeter than carrots or milk, our idea of the quality of “sweet” would be just as indistinct as it is in the case of this peculiar quality. Just as honey and sugar gave us so clear a notion of what sweet is, the salts of (the amino acid) glutamic acid are destined to give us an equally definite idea of this peculiar taste quality.
Based on over two years of research, he was convinced that another basic taste existed. He found umami in “fish, meat, and so forth”—in foods with high-protein content.
Ikeda’s “discovery” of umami was based as much on his mastery of physical chemistry as it was on his own taste experiences and the flavors endemic to Japanese foods. Japanese cuisine, more than European and Eurocentric cuisines, is centered on umami as a foundational element and is a key taste in the Japanese palate. The two foods Ikeda focused on to extract glutamic acid were konbu and bonito, the key elements in dashi—a savory broth ubiquitous throughout Japanese cooking.
As it happens, both konbu (a dried brown kelp) and katsuobushi (bonito, or skipjack tuna which is fermented, dried, smoked, and flaked) contain large amounts of glutamic acid. In fact, miso soup, a twice-daily habit in most Japanese households even today, is a combination of two strong umami flavors: dashi and miso (fermented soy paste).
Ikeda also singled out soy sauce as a food that amplifies umami. In particular, soy sauce, with its high salt and glutamic acid content, was an excellent example of how salt intensified the taste of umami.
As research in umami took hold in the second half of the 20th century, scientists found that umami was far more complex than any of the other basic tastes. One of the first major breakthroughs was the discovery that compounds other than glutamic acid produce umami.
For example, both MSG—a combination of salt and glutamic acid—and other acids each produce distinct umami flavors. But when they are combined, the perception of umami is more than the sum of its parts. No other basic taste has this capability to ratchet up taste perception.
Getting to know umami in the US
Ikeda’s and the Japanese palate was trained to experience umami, unlike palates in either Europe or the United States.
By the end of the Vietnam War, though, shifting immigration patterns to the United States included more East Asians from Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, China, and South Korea. These immigrants brought a variety of new cultural influences to the US, particularly on the West Coast.
By the mid-1980s, when Japan Inc dominated headlines and was thought to threaten American prosperity, Chinese restaurants were more common than Italian ones, and sushi, whether loved or reviled, defined Japanese food for most Americans. Immigration and assimilation of East Asian flavors into American cuisine as well as a plethora of industrial foods that incorporated glutamates made umami a far more common taste and altered the American taste landscape and the American palate in the late 20th century.
It took until the early 2000s for the scientific community to recognize umami as the fifth taste, but in the decades preceding that, the rising popularity of soy sauce, tofu, fish sauce, and other foods high in glutamates not only integrated East Asian flavors into the American palate but also helped to weave those communities into the social fabric of the US.
So as you are eating your Thanksgiving turkey with gravy and relishing all the side dishes—such as mushrooms, brussels sprouts, or stuffing—that make the meal delicious, remember that the savory taste of umami only became obvious in the US in the last half-century. That’s something for which we can all be thankful.