10/10/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Umami Comes to a Pizzeria Near You

What does the science of taste have to do with pizza?

A lot it turns out, since one of the five basic tastes--umami--appears in Parmesan cheese and cooked tomatoes.

Umami is a hot topic in the food world these days. One of of five distinctive tastes--the others are salt, sweet, sour, and bitter--it packs a wallop when it hits the tongue.

The Japanese term umami means "savory" or "deliciousness." Though it's been around for ages-- umami was first identified in 1908 by Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, and it's a component of classic French stocks--it's only lately that umami's been elevated to culinary super-stardom.

To learn more about the complexities of taste, I spoke with Renee Marton, a New York-based chef (including a stint at the now-shuttered Florent), teacher and culinary historian. Along with Magaret Happel Perry, a former New York University food studies professor, Pillsbury VP and Redbook food editor, Marton taught a series of classes exploring taste last winter at the Astor Center, a food and wine education center, located in Manhattan.

The pair is planning to reprise their course this winter.

Why are people suddenly so interested in taste, especially umami?

There's been an increasing interest in Asian flavors and food in the last 20 or 30 years, which is cresting today. Umami is a concept that's become popular. Some well-known chefs, like Nobu, have put umami on the map by cooking in a way where we can contrast Western and Eastern cooking flavors.

Why should we care about taste? If it tastes good, isn't that enough for most people?

If you enhance your palate, you'll be better able to taste the difference between a grass- fed burger and a factory farm burger. Some people will say, "an idiot can taste the difference." But you need an educated palate for your health, for the environment, and to enjoy your food.

What is umami?

It means "deliciousness" in Japanese. In terms of how you perceive your food, it's a major flavor enhancer. [Japanese chemist] Ikeda synthesized glutamate and found that it added a certain deliciousness to food. When you cook something, proteins break down, and different amino acids are released. It enhances its savory flavor.

What are some examples?

Parmesan cheese is an excellent example. Tomatoes are rich in glutamates. Umami foods tend to take a classic dish, like pizza, and make it more delicious. Cooked tomatoes have even more umami than raw ones.

This is new in Western cooking?

Every culture has its own group of seasonings or fat combinations that define the food of that culture. We are used to fat carrying the flavor in ways that are not the case in Eastern cooking. But we use stocks and bullions, and those are the basics of umami production in Western cooking. It's just that no one ever called it that.

Umami and MSG appear to be closely related. I thought MSG was bad for you.

That's an old wive's tale. MSG has been cleared over and over again. All the science backs up MSG as being 100 percent safe.

Tell me how umami appears in foods.

In France, using veal, chicken or fish stock to make food more flavorful is a given. In Italy, aged cheese and cooked tomatoes give food an extra wallop.

Why all this interest right now?

It's the 100th anniversary of the discovery of umami. Kikkoman [the soy sauce producer] and other people are promoting it. Also, we have a better vocabulary for talking about it.

What about some of the tastes we're more familiar with, like sugar.

One of sugar's characteristics is that it retains moisture. When you make a cake, it stays moist because of sugar. Sugar is also a preservative, which is how you get dried fruits.

And what about salt? Doctors tell you to lower your salt intake, but don't you need some salt so food has some flavor?

Salt does affect your blood pressure. But one reason people eat too much salt, is that they eat too much processed food. I would never cook pasta in anything other than very salty water. I you didn't add enough salt, you would add much more at the table and possibly more Parmesan to replace the salt you didn't use in the first place.

In a very small way, the interest in umami is partly driven by the need to replace salt with something else.