Like all living things, we start out hungry. For me it was a desire for mother’s milk, which is rich in L-glutamate. L-glutamate is part of the chemical foundation responsible for the taste sensation known as umami. We pursue umami unconsciously or, if you’re like me, with full attention. I look for food on restaurant menus or to cook at home that are high in L-glutamate.
Umami, the fifth taste (after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter) was discovered in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist in Tokyo, and it is found in foods like shellfish, dry aged steak, parmesan and mozzarella, tomatoes, wild mushrooms, the fermented fish sauces of southeast Asia, soy, and cumin. It’s not mommy, but umami, and the satisfaction that comes from it is powerful.
Umami has deep, long flavor that registers with receptors on the tongue and announces itself to the brain with a shout and then a long echo.
When you realize that umami is the most powerful taste available to us after mother’s milk, you discover that the idea of culture-specific cuisines is a fabrication. French food is said to be the best in the world. It’s not. Anyway, what is French food? How do we define food as specific to a nation? Does it speak French? Mais, non!
You could say that compartmentalizing foods to cultures is an artifact of the western tradition of hegemony that provided imperialist nations with the moral justification for centuries of racism and exploitation. Fine, I’ll say it. Seriously. Look at culinary schools, Michelin starred restaurants, and most celebrity chefs. French, French, French. C’est fou!
France has pride of place in each case and, sure, French food is delicious, but what about the cuisines of Italy, Japan, regions of China and Japan, west Africa, and the Middle East? Each of these locations has a gastronomy rich in foods with umami, but only Japan is considered to be up there with the French. And that’s only within the past ten years.
But what if we all wake up tomorrow morning, refreshed and rich with originality from a good night’s sleep, and decide to respond to what we eat by how it tastes? Au revoir, cultural imperatives!
Now I’m not talking about hodgepodge cooking or a celebration of fusion or playing with food. No, what I mean is raising our psychological consciousness so that we respond viscerally to what is on the plate. The implication is that with our minds and mouths open that we will experience taste unconditionally.
Liberated, we will wonder what cultures, history, traditions, economics, and psychology went into the food. Take nam pla, for example, the ubiquitous sauce of Thailand, made of fermented fish, that packs a wallop of flavor. This is an ingredient that, like kombu, the dried kelp needed to make miso soup in Japan, comes from centuries of poverty. History unfolds on the palate, and while we will always have Paris, we are now, at last, inviting nations to the table that historically provided the servants.
We spend all our lives trying to recreate the love that comes from the maternal embrace. History, until very recently, made the west into the mother superior. By breaking down the artifice of cultural narratives, we can find umami in foods that might surprise you.
Really, next time you have pad thai, cumin scented lamb, or rigatoni in a tomato and porcini ragu, look at the food and ask: Are you my mother?