• umami •
u-mah-mee • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: No, today's word is not an illiterate reference to your mother, but a word representing what many believe is a fifth taste. The same taste is referred to as xian wei in Chinese cooking.
Notes: The consensus is that the human tongue can detect only four basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. All other tastes are combinations of these plus smell and texture. Some Japanese, however, contend that we have a fifth taste, that of savory, and they have named it umami "scrumptiousness."
In Play: Recent years have seen an upsurge of Japanese and Chinese restaurants. Could we be witnessing a umami tsunami? Since the meaning of today's word is narrowly limited to the Japanese and Chinese fifth sense of taste, we have little opportunity of using it figuratively: "Everyone, who knows what it is, has a different idea of which foods have umami."
Word History: The Japanese word umami is a derived noun based on uma- "scrumptious, delicious" + -mi "ness", although the character for the suffix is often replaced by the character for mi "flavor". Around the turn of the century, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University began boiling seaweed called kombu in search of a fifth taste the tongue could identify. He found what he thought was that taste associated with a protein building-block, an amino acid called glutamate, as in monosodium glutamate, a common ingredient in Eastern cooking. Whether glutamate is a fifth flavor or just a natural flavor enhancer is still controversial, but those who support the Fifth Flavor Theory claim it is a meaty or savory flavor. (We are happy that Jim Wilcox of Eugene, Oregon, had the uncommonly good taste to share his discovery of today's word with us, and that Juliet Carpenter provided her editorial services.)