Umami seibun - the foundation of flavour

how to tame this MSG beast, get better flavours into your dish and why it improves food and wine pairings

Flavour enhancers often enough are a topic around the dinner table, not only for the health conscious but also certainly for any conscientious cook. No surprise, I certainly disapprove of the use of monosodium glutamate, commonly referred to as MSG, found in many convenience foods as well as in apparently popular stock cubes and stocks, which I hope that after reading this column, you will banish from your good kitchen.

Some Asian cuisines can be high in MSG levels. There is much debate about the existence of the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome or CRS – with symptoms such as headache, dizziness, skin irritation and nausea among other adverse reactions from the intake of even traces of MSG, specifically to people with a low thresholds to MSG. Some diners perhaps more likely experience these symptoms after eating foods with high levels of histamine and sulphites, both common ingredients in soy sauce and many other ingredients used in Asian cuisines.

MSG, also known as sodium glutamate, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acids and it is commonly produced by synthesizing molasses or starch, an inexpensive by-product, with the ability to enhance flavour by stimulating the taste buds.

Savouriness in foods is nowadays recognized as a fifth primary taste, on an equal footing with the four better known receptors which are sweet, sour, salty and bitter. So, umami taste is best described as savoury or meaty, just as salt tastes salty and sugar is sweet.

The food industry has made use of what was identified by a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda back in 1908 as umami or savouriness factor (Aji-No-Moto) ever since, but not necessarily for the benefit of the consumer.

From a cook's perspective there are many ways to maximise flavour in dishes without adding MSG. Primarily this is can be achieved by selecting and applying food components that are naturally high in free glutamic acid, the naturally occurring glutamate. Ingredients such as seaweeds, mushrooms, parmesan and other aged cheeses, tomatoes, celery and lemon, when used appropriately in cooking are outstanding natural flavour enhancers and make the use of artificial MSG unnecessary. Taste increases even more when the good glutamate is combined with foods that are rich in protein, sodium or calcium.

It is interesting to note that foods enriched by natural glutamate seem to be more balanced and possess a more lasting taste impression, remaining on the palate for a longer period of time.

Precise seasoning is vital to perfecting the taste of a dish. This knowledge plays an important role when it comes to matching wine to food. The savouriness in a wine is equally important as the savouriness in food. A wine with superb attributes - finely balanced, complex and mature, naturally relates better to foods than a one-dimensional wine, thus elevating wine and food matches to a higher level. 


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