At Cheltenham Science Festival, June 2005 I talked at an event called ‘New Frontiers of Taste’, specifically to discuss ‘umami’ – otherwise known as the fifth taste.
Umami, MSG and the stranger effects of food.
I usually love quirky ideas about food, so it annoys me to admit that amongst this group of umami-loving panellists [including Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck and Edmund Rolls, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University], I’m a bit of a sceptic. Not about the function of glutamate, for which I am infinitely grateful, but abut this fifth taste thing. Let’s take the words that have been used to describe it: deliciousness, savouriness, umami…ness. I’m sorry, something is wrong here: these aren’t real words. I find it hard to believe that a language as rich as English can’t come up with a decent word to describe something as explosively sensual as a fifth taste. Is this all a fuss about nothing? And how relevant is it to break taste down into just 4 or even 5 elements or isolate flavour from taste? I know that Edmund has identified umami, but I’m not sure if that matters. In India, they have a system of 8 separate tastes – can one billion mouths be wrong?
Just out of interest, could you put up your hand if you know, without question, what umami tastes like? [a handful of people –out of 200 or so – put up their hands].
Last year, I went to Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market courtesy of the BBC and bought a piece of the most ferociously expensive tuna I could find at £150 a kilo. Then I made a marinade using all the foods with the highest levels of glutamate and guanylate: konbu (which is dried kelp), shitake mushrooms, bonito flakes, miso, mirin and sake and marinated half of the tuna in it. It was wonderful, but when I compared it to a slice of raw, unmarinated tuna, it didn’t taste more savoury, delicious or…erm…umami-licious, but sweeter, saltier and, frankly, stronger. It may well have been a glutamate and ribonucleotide combination enhancing the food, but it didn’t have a different taste – just an enhanced one with elements of all these marinade ingredients. To be quite honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever really tasted umami.
So I’m going to suggest a new name for umami to put the whole concept into better perspective, and I’d like to take a vote on a new name for this taste, with the help of this widely-available snack food
But before that, I’d like to talk about what really fascinates me: the side-effects of foods, or at least people’s perception of these effects, and the idea that food can be good or bad. MSG has been blamed for a variety of problems including the so-called ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ and seems to be generally considered as a culprit, despite the lack of any reliable, unqualified, clear evidence. It’s always more gratifying to have a culprit, isn’t it? We want solid reasons for being under par, for not achieving our potential. And this is why 20% of the population think that they have a food allergy of some sort, but in reality, only 1.4% of the population actually has one (this is according to the British Nutrition Foundation). So why do we imagine all these non-existent food allergies? I’d put it down as a natural human desire for sympathy. We want people to feel our pain. I know I do.
There’s a classic quote from a fella called Paracelsus who, around 400 years ago said: ‘all substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison.’ And that’s because the harm a substance does is often in relation to how much of it is consumed. Fish is a great food in so many ways, but it usually contains arsenic and lead, both of which can be very bad for you. Then again. arsenic is also essential for growth and iron metabolism. We all need water to live, but drink too much water and you’ll die. It’s all a question of scale. There’s no such thing as a guilty or innocent food.
But I’ll leave the MSG argument to the scientists. Instead I asked 200 people what food makes them fart, belch, smell, dream, hallucinate or want to jump into bed with each other. Now, food scientists, doctors and dieticians aren’t particularly keen on what the public has to say because the public tends to be self-deluded, unreliable, prone to hypochondria, reliant on anecdote and on the lookout for miracles.
Which is precisely why they are infinitely more interesting. I’m going to give you a sneaky peek at some of the results.
The first question I asked was:
Do you experience any strange physiological reactions to food:
And here are some of the things they said:
||Apples make my legs itch
||I get nightmares after eating potatoes
||Blue cheese gives me an instant headache
||Golden Syrup makes me cough
||Glace cherries dramatically change my metabolic rate
||Omlettes give me diahorrea
||Nuts make me itchy
||Chocolate makes me itchy
||Chilli gives me hiccups
||Cashews make me sneeze
||Cheese makes me vomit
||Curry gives me smelly sweat
||Alcohol makes me drunk
Now, at least 80% of people wrongly identify food allergies and intolerances, but even so, if only 20% of those reactions are true, that’s still pretty spectacular.
What food makes your wee smell?
Next, I asked:
What food is most likely to make you fart?’
||Onion & garlic
Does cheese make you dream?
34% of people reckoned it does and the dreams were variously…
Erotic (32% of all cheese-dreamers)
Driving a cheap car
And finally, and most importantly:
Which meal, if any, is most likely to end in sexual congress?
||Meal with lots of alcohol
||Cooked by male partner
Obscure and enigmatic answers were common, such as “urgent”, “Lady wrapped in bacon”, “meals tend to start an argument” and “I’d be lucky”.
Now how about you lot?
In the short time we’ve had to analyse the results of your own admissions, here’s what floats the boats of the Cheltenham Science Festival:
||15% of you think that cheese makes you dream. Of those people, 39% dreamt about cheese.
||Beans are most likely to make you fart
||Meals with lots of alcohol are most likely to lead to sexual congress
So if you really want an evening of fun, I suggest you serve asparagus spears with a Jerusalem artichoke and haricot bean salad, a take-away box of sushi, then follow it off with a big hunk of mature Parmesan and wash it all down with a 4 litre bottle of strong sake. You should be in for a whole shed-load of fun.
And, as most of these foods are high in natural glutamate, this brings us back in a random and quite possibly fatuous way to umami and the Wotsit. Please open your bags of Wotsits now because, I’d like to take a vote. I put it to you, good people of Cheltenham Science Festival, that these little golden nuggets of love are the epitome of umami, should any such a thing exist. Happily, they are made with oodles of MSG, they contain cheese extract for natural glutamate and they deliver a robust sodium hit. You may well disagree, but I’d like to suggest that these little fellas have a strange and wonderful taste like no other substance on earth and that, with no tangible evidence to the contrary, this may as well be what umami means.
So please try one now.
I’d like to propose changing the name of umami, deliciousness and savouriness to…Wotsityness, and thereby making it something that we can finally identify with.
And I’d like to take a vote on it:
Please raise your hand if you fancy changing the name of umami to Wotsityness?
[The chairwoman Kathy Sykes reckoned the vote was split pretty much 50-50. I was over the moon.]
Fantastic. Lets hope that the powers that be take this on board.
Let me just leave you with this one last fact:
62% of you said that you are Tasty. Thankyouverymuch.
Ó Stefan Gates 2005