When a person eats with unhurried appreciation they consciously use all their senses-sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. With each bite, they take interest and pleasure in how their sensory systems combine the various stimuli of the food and they teach (or re-teach) themselves to distinguish texture, temperature, color, shape and sound, all of which transmit the pleasant sensations of eating.
As more people take up food as their hobby, adding to the thousands already reading all the food publications, columns, blogs and watching the food-centric television programs, there seems to be a growing, popular need to learn everything about food. Some might call these people food obsessed, but I'm thinking... this may be a very good thing for healthful well-being.
Overcoming mindless eating means not only focusing on food choices and becoming aware of internal clues, it is striving for a better understanding of external clues- the why, what, where, when, how much, and with whom factors-influencing eating behavior. Understanding a perceived flavor of food not only depends on the physicochemical properties and the aroma compounds of the food but is also powered by psychological considerations.
When families, friends and new guests take meals together they come to realize how greatly human tasting ability varies. When we become aware of our body sensations we also become engaged with our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and associations, leading insight into who we are. Exactly how neural networks encode sensory information, and the brain turns reception of smells and tastes into perception with behavioral outcomes, continues to be a key question for researchers.
Igniting a broader interest in these ideas about gustatory experience is the fifth taste, umami (oo-MOM-ee). Since 2001, when umami was verified by American scientists as an official taste, understanding its complex perceptive nuances has become of interest to great chefs, academics and a rapidly growing population of gourmets and foodies. Umami is a Japanese word referring to the taste of the savory. The rich nature of Umami, the foundation on which Asian cooking is based, is being further adapted to western palettes. Many Americans now wish to better understand and share what they know about the experience of this appetizing taste.
There are plenty of foods rich in the taste of umami, which is imparted by the amino acid, glutamate and nucleotides in certain foods. Americans are most familiar with the flavor of umami in seafood and aged meats. In addition, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and mushrooms are staple plant foods in the American diet with naturally occurring glutamates, tomatoes having the highest levels. Americans also experience the sensory attributes of umami compounds in cheddar, swiss and parmesan cheeses, as well as the classic favorite, chicken noodle soup. If you are currently wondering what this taste is all about, a single bit of an anchovy can provide a dense and satisfying experience example.
While in LA recently, I met with Professor Amy Rowat, Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, UCLA. When teaching at Harvard, Rowat originated a method of conveying complex concepts of physics through cooking processes. During a tour of her new research lab, she told me she was also cooking up a course for the students to explore the fifth taste, which she felt was little understood by comparison to the experiences of sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
Rowat spoke about Adam Fleischman, the self-taught chef-owner of the chain Umami Burger, whose food sensation of the same name is built for maximum umami force. By utilizing an amalgam of glutamate-rich ingredients, Fleischman yields what is considered to be an umami masterpiece of meaty, savory taste. His philosophy is to compound the different umami ingredients: grilled shitake mushrooms, parmesan cheese, caramelized onions, and roasted tomatoes, where he can maximize the intensity and complexity exponentially. This fast food restaurant, dedicated to all things umami, has brought the full force of the slow, sumptuous stimulation of the savory to bear on the fast food burger.
Maybe it's not ironic to make slow food principles ubiquitous to fast food culture. This has got be a culinary step forward for the Standard American Diet and the sensorial pleasures that one's daily diet can provide. Fast food is being further redefined by use of local ingredients, as at New York's Shake Shack, and organic meat, as at Virginia's Elevation Burger. Chipotle, uses both local ingredients and hormone-free organic meats. The chain of four Umami Burger restaurants in LA is soon to go national so- may the force of umami be near you.
As fast, convenient food becomes pleasurable and worth our time, maybe we can all take small culinary journeys more frequently, while slowing down to develop closer ties to our communities and the environment.