In zoology they have something called a keystone species, which is a species that has a positive impact on its surrounding ecosystem disproportionate to its small population. In other words, in spite of a keystone species’ small numbers, it is a vital factor in sustaining several other species around it. This is a concept awesome enough to warrant its own post[i], but for now we have more savoury fish to fry – an idiom which will make more sense shortly. As in zoology, occasionally a thing comes across so awesome it creates, sustains or explains many other awesome things, giving it an awesomeness far greater than the sum of its parts. Henceforth, I will be referring to these awesome things as verendic keystones, or just keystones.
Today’s keystone is umami. Simply put, umami is one of five basic flavours the human tongue can discern, corresponding to the English word savoury. Throughout most of human history, foods have been described as tasting like one or a combination of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that a Japanese scientist named Kikunae Ikeda did research into this fifth flavour, giving it the Japanese name umami, which means “yummy.” It took another 90 years or so for the West to catch up when, in 2002, scientists finally found the evidence they needed to confirm that the human tongue really does detect a fifth flavour. They named it umami in honour of Kikunae Ikeda.
But what is umami, apart from not-sweet, not-sour, not-salty and not-bitter? The easiest way to put it is that it’s the flavour that makes meat meaty and cheese cheesy, among other things. And it is, in this awesome compiler’s humble opinion, the source of nearly all that is delicious in this world. It’s a subtle and hard-to-pin-down flavour,[ii] but it’s present in the background of some of the most delectable foods in the world, and its presence often enhances and enriches the other four flavours. Umami is responsible for the flavours of the bacon, the cheese and the beef in cheeseburgers. Umami is what gives cheeses their rich, multi-layered flavours. It’s the addictive, indefinable taste in potato chips none of us can walk away from once we’ve grabbed a handful. It’s the thing in Cheez-Its that makes “Get your own box” the most apt slogan I’ve seen a company develop in years. It’s the element in tomatoes that makes it ideal on a sandwich, delicious in salsa, and absolutely perfect with a grilled cheese sandwich. French fries, tortilla chips, asparagus, calamari, green tea, and mushrooms are all rich in umami. In short, umami is responsible for just about anything on this earth worth eating.
Umami would be awesome in and of itself just for being the long-lost fifth flavour. Its elusiveness evokes the alchemists’ chimera, the fifth element, lending it a primal appeal which is downright elemental.[iii] Ever in the background, umami was content throughout history to let the other four flavours fight it out for the spotlight, while it silently weaved its magic on the human appetite. After all, umami well understood, there are people out there who have their sweet tooth; there are people who prefer salty foods; there are even the occasional people who like sour or bitter foods, but these are all foods of craving. The foods people need – the foods people cannot live without, both for sustenance and pleasure – those foods are rich in umami. And that’s what warrants a special recognition for umami as an awesome thing. It’s not just a delicious food. It may very well be the foundation of delicious foods.[iv]
And that, people, is awesome. Now I’m going to go make myself a grilled cheese, dip it in a rich, savoury bowl of tomato soup, and give thanks to God above for umami.
[i] And there will be one at some point.
[ii] As evidenced by the fact that it’s taken the human race a good three thousand years to agree it even exists!
[iv] I will admit that I never have had much of a sweet tooth. I love a lot of sweet foods, but with few exceptions, every dish that has stolen my heart and not just my palate, is umami.