Escoffier, Ikeda, Umami…


Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who is credited (and rightfully so) with the “discovery” of Umami.
Escoffier, Ikeda, Umami…

If you are one of my students (or an avid reader of this blog), you know that I think it is very important to differentiate between “taste” and “flavor” when discussing wine (or food, for that matter).   One of the reasons for this is that I teach future chefs and sommeliers, and as future professionals I think it is important that my students use the correct terminology.  Another reason is that “taste” and “flavor” are two totally different factors in the discussion of food and wine pairing.

So, one of the first questions I address in my Professional Wine Studies class is “What is a taste, and what is a flavor”?  It sometimes takes several weeks for my students to use the two terms in the proper context, so I begin with the simple fact that flavor is a combination of taste, aroma, and texture, and there are (depending on who you ask) five or six generally accepted “tastes”. 

A “taste” is defined as “a sensation that can be perceived using only the human tongue, or the taste buds”. Just a few years ago it was generally accepted that there were four basic tastes, each able to be sensed in all areas of the tongue but for many people perceived most dramatically in a particular region of the palate.  The first taste to be detected, and the one most universally enjoyed is sweetness.  The taste of sweetness evolved as a survival mechanism to point the way to energy-yielding carbohydrate.  The second taste to be perceived is generally acidity, which is sensed by most people most readily on the sides of the tongue.  Salt, generally senses in the middle of the tongue and bitterness, easily detected at the back of the tongue are the next two.

The sensation we now call the “fifth taste” is Umami.  Umami was first described in the early 1900’s by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University.  Dr. Ikeda was determined to find the source of what the Japanese had long called the “deliciousness” or “savoriness” of food cooked in dashi, which is a sort of stock made from kombu (kelp).  Dr. Ikeda managed to discover the true nature of this flavor enhancer when he succeeded in extracting an amino acid, glutamate, from kombu.  Umami was referred to as “deliciousness, savoriness, or meatiness” until 2000, when a taste receptor for glutamate was discovered and  identified as an umami receptor by researchers at the University of Miami (Florida, United States) School of Medicine, confirming it as the official “fifth taste”. 

Auguste Escoffier…he may have never used the word, but he was nonetheless a great proponent of Umami.

Interestingly enough, culinary historians now argue that Auguste Escoffier, the great French Chef of the early 1900’s, is also one of the “discoverers” of umami, despite the fact that he did not know or use the word.  It seems that Escoffier was one of the first chefs to utilize reduced veal stock on a wide scale in professional kitchens.  Escoffier based many of his recipes, particularly his sauces, on reduced veal stock.  It was easily recognized that dishes cooked with veal stock were “delicious”! While Escoffier most likely did not realize it, this veal stock reduction created a liquid rich in the amino acid glutamate, which lent that “deliciousness”, in the form that we now recognize as umami, to many of his preparations – to the delight of his customers; and to the amazement of modern sensory science.

To make matters even more interesting, scientists have identified a substance named “kokumi” that is being touted as the “sixth taste”. Kokumi has been identified as a unique taste, complete with an identified sensory receptor in the taste buds, and is thought to be the taste component of the nutrient calcium.  The discovery of kokumi has opened up the possibility that there may be many more tastes identifiable by the human tongue; perhaps each nutrient has its own unique taste component.  If this is indeed the case, my “Basics of Sensory Evaluation” class just got a lot more interesting!


About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

2 Responses to Escoffier, Ikeda, Umami…

  1. Shields says:

    Interesting stuff! I am still not sure about umami…it sems a little “hocus-pocus” to me.

  2. Great story – you’re the only person I have ever read that put “Escoffier” and “Umami” together in such a way!

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