Sake Gumi
Photo (c) The New York Times

Props to my girl Julia Moskin over at the NY Times Dining section for today's cover story about MSG. It's a thorough, well investigated, succinct update on the forms MSG has taken in our globalized, contemporary fast food world. Read it!

Of course, you can't talk MSG without talking UMAMI. MSG was invented in Japan in the early 1900s on the principal of umami, or "glutamates". As the article reveals, umami is a tricky subject, having sustained an endless, heated debate in the nutrition and food science industries. One university lady says, "All this umami stuff is just marketing". I don't agree with that, but I can see how frustrating the idea of umami can be for these food scientists.

Really, umami is more of a concept. My dad, a professional chef, even has a difficult time explaining umami to me. People say "roundness", "meatiness" or "savoriness", but c'mon, what does that even mean?

Moskin says, "Although umami is only a bit player in Japanese cuisine, reams of breathless prose have been produced here on this elusive fifth taste, which is supposedly linked to the profoundly pure, deep sea flavors of kelp and dried tuna."

I gotta give it to her- this is a pretty insightful statement. To sound absolutely hokey, umami is something like poetry. BUT, she trips up when she says that it's only a "bit player in Japanese cuisine"-- I could write a dissertation on how the concept of this elusive umami is a metaphor for Japanese culture in general. One word people: SUBTLETY!!! The subtlety of the flavors of dashi (broth), which is basically water boiled with kelp or dried bonito or shiitake mushrooms creates a foundation of flavor that is so slight, so subtle, but is absolutely the basis of Japanese food.

Japanese culture is based on this subtlety- you communicate feelings and thoughts without overt, obvious actions or words. Call it Zen, whatever you want, but it is what it is. (I say this completely removed from Japanese culture, cause I'm totally the opposite of subtle.)

In conclusion, I would just like to say that I named this blog Umami Mart on the idea that umami exists in all foods, not just Japanese cuisine. It's just a happy feeling that you get eating carne asada, tom yum, an In-n-Out burger. Why else would we eat?

According to the article, MSG is in anything in the world now from your Doritos, salad dressing to bouillon cubes. MSG transformed umami into a substantial, real entity- it ain't just poetry anymore! Your lips might get tingly, but c'mon, that is so sexy.

Related topics:
* Eat, Drink and Be Merry's post on the world of Maggi sauces- awesome post

* My pop's spicy tuna roll, the best EVER (no joke), wouldn't be what it is without the wondrous Kewpie mayonnaise (above picture, dead center). Thank god for mayo in a tube.

Column: The UM Reader


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