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Whenever you chomp, slurp, chew, and munch food, around 10,000 taste buds on your tongue and palate help you boldly go where you’ve never gone before on your modern-day quests for new tastes.
Sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, were thought to be the only four types of tastes we humans experienced—even though we’ve always been tasting the fifth taste, since the dawn of, well, eating. This fifth taste remained unnamed and unknown, until the discovery by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemistry professor, over a century ago, because he was determined to detect a dominant savoury taste in his dashi or soup base. Thanks to his sensory curiosity, the world now has a fifth new “savoury” taste which he named umami or “deliciousness” in Japanese.
What is umami anyway? Asking people to describe umami sometimes yields fun answers such as “It’s that special something.”
But don’t despair, as I am about to give you the simplest explanation of umami, that will make you the ultimate umami aficionado for your next conversation.
The five basic tastes we can sense are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. A dish will have that savoury, umami, fifth taste when it is made with one or more ingredients rich in natural glutamic acid. In the professor’s case, he discovered that the glutamic acid-rich seaweed was creating the savoury taste in his dashi.
Umami or the savoury taste of glutamic acid is naturally present not only in meat and seafood, but umami is abundantly present in vegetables, mushrooms, dairy, seaweed, fermented foods, and even green tea. And dishes rich in natural umami make you crave them more. If you crave certain dishes and find them to be mouth-watering and irresistible despite multiple servings—then you have experienced umami.
I am not talking about the food additive, monosodium glutamate (MSG), the mass-produced salt form of glutamic acid, which is known to be toxic in levels higher than our body can handle, but I am strictly talking about the naturally-occurring glutamic acid in the plant and animal world. Our own human body naturally produces glutamate, a powerful and vital neurotransmitter released by the nerve cells in our brain. Both MSG and natural umami are one and the same by the way, but it’s easier to consume harmful levels of glutamic acid in the MSG salt form, as is the case of unhealthy fast foods.
Since the use of the word umami in the international culinary parlance, umami-rich dishes from countries around the world have become well-known, but what dishes come to mind when you think of the Indian umami?
Umami has rarely, if ever, been associated with Indian cuisines. This is unfortunate because our rich tapestries of cuisines are replete with umami. And one particular dish perfectly epitomizes umami for me—look no further than the South Indian maami’s umami dish—the splendiferous sambar.
Sambar, the South Indian vegan stew, has more than half a dozen ingredients rich in natural glutamic acid. Onions, tomatoes, garlic, carrots, daikon radishes, drumsticks, and seasonings including asafoetida, mustard seeds, and fenugreek seeds, just to name a few. Combining these ingredients creates a unique umami flavour profile found in no other dish worldwide.
Much like our Tollywood and Bollywood movies, sambar is the joyful song and dance number without which the South Indian breakfast, lunch, and dinner are certifiably incomplete. With household and restaurant kitchens serving up copious amounts of this delectable umami treat every day, sambar is that ubiquitous and trusty friend Jai, to the idlis, dosas, rice, poriyals, and the other Veerus on our plates, singing “yeh dosti hum nahi todenge.”
The dozens of varieties of sambar and kozhambu are not just power-packed with delicious flavours, textures, veggies, minerals, vitamins, and protein, but they are also packed with umami. This is what makes sambar so addictive. And its umami-ness is why we never get tired of eating sambar every day. Pair sambar with a potato fry and it will undoubtedly send shockwaves through your taste buds because, you guessed it, potatoes are rich in glutamic acid too.
So let’s raise our buckets and ladles filled to the brim with this Indian umami goodness and say, “More sambar please!”
Bae is an artist, book author, food writer, and creator of Bae’s Kitchen Show. Find her latest works on Instagram @queenbaeshive.