Taste enables enjoyment. The classic basic flavors include sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But in 1908, the chemist Kikunae Ikeda of the Imperial University of Tokyo discovered that monosodium glutamate was responsible for a taste that was different from the four. Ikeda found the responsible link in the kombu alga, she named umami – “delicious” in Japanese – and patented it. Just one year later, monosodium glutamate was marketed under the brand name Aji-No-Moto, which means “the essence of taste”.
Hardly anyone in the West paid any attention to this. That changed only when molecular biologists discovered the corresponding receptors almost a century later. In the meantime, however, monosodium glutamate, also known as additive E621, gained a truly bad reputation. Wrongly. Because even if most don’t know: Umami is widespread.
Umami can be found in mushrooms, Spanish ham, Parmesan cheese and, curiously, in breast milk. It is the typical taste of meat and fish extracts, which is why beef, pork and lamb are so popular with the population, and of soy sauce.
The alleged “Chinese restaurant syndrome” does not exist
So why has umami fallen into disrepute? The reason is a letter that may not even have been taken seriously, but was a joke among medical professionals. The letter, published in the New England Journal of Medicine under the heading “Monosodium Glutamate and the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” was only a few paragraphs long. “For several years since I’ve been in this country, I’ve had a strange syndrome when I have eaten in a Chinese restaurant,” wrote the author, a Robert Ho Man Kwok. Symptoms included “numbness in the neck that gradually spreads to both arms and back, general weakness and palpitations”. He speculated that the sodium in the food, something in the soy sauce or in the cooking wine could be the cause. Or it is due to the monosodium glutamate, “which is used on a large scale in Chinese restaurants for seasoning.”