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Ikeda and his tongue

"The kitchen", said the culinary writer Grimod de la Reynière, was "the birthplace of new inventions". Kikunae Ikeda, professor of chemistry at the Imperial University of Tokyo, discovered one of the best proofs: "umami" in 1908.

In mid-1907, while dining with his family, Ikeda slammed his tongue several times.

He was thinking of kombu dashi - a Japanese specialty broth made of dried seaweed - which he ate: what taste does he have? According to Ikeda, the taste can not be classified as sweet, sour, salty or bitter.

Then Ikeda experimented. He boiled 12 kg of dried seaweed (kombu) until it became a thick liquid. For months, he extracted and examined the liquid. The result: a brownish crystal tastes according to the shadow of Ikeda. He then named the umami powder, from the word umai which means delicious and noodles which means taste. In Indonesian, we know that this taste is salty.

In her article in The Guardian, Amy Fleming described umami as an interesting piece in a human gastronomic puzzle.


"After research, studies have shown that our languages ​​have salty receivers, fifth taste (four other basic flavors were accepted thousands of years ago), how many old recipes suddenly make sense. why the Romans loved liquamen, anchovy fermented sauce that was brewed as gently as possible to resemble the soy sauce we know, "he wrote.

Fleming also said that Escoffier, the legendary French chef of the 19th century known for his ability to prepare veal broth, believed that the secret of his success was born from the fifth taste. "But everyone is too busy eating, so he ignores theories," said Fleming.

Long before it was named and recognized as taste, umami was actually well known to the human tongue: it was contained in asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, meat and various natural and processed foods. In Indonesia, says Purwiyatno Hariyadi, professor of food science and technology at IPB, Umami is contained in tempeh, shrimp paste and sweet soy sauce.

According to Ikeda, the typical taste of umami is due to glutamic acid - which, after ionization, also contains other substances such as calcium, potassium, magnesium glutamate and glutamate sodium. Of these substances, sodium glutamate is the easiest to crystallize and is dominant in the production of flavors.

The Ikeda experiment gave rise to a different discovery: a crystal whose molecule was called monosodium glutamate, also called MSG. In 1908, MSG is patented and the following year, it is manufactured in series with the brand Aji-no-moto, which means the essence of delicacy.

Suspected, accused, desired


in 1968, Western audiences were troubled by the publication of the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS) in the New England Journal of Medicine. CRS are symptoms that occur after eating Chinese food: dizziness, nausea, sweating. The research was based on someone's confession that every time he ate Chinese food 15 to 20 minutes later, he felt that his neck was stiff and his body weakened. Thus, MSG, which is widely used in Asian cooking, is accused of being the culprit.

Subsequent studies were also organized. The results show that there is no cause and effect relationship between CRS and MSG. "If MSG is dangerous, why are not all Chinese or all Asians disturbed to eat it?" According to Jeffrey Steingarten, a food critic, this is a case of racism. The FDA, the US Food and Drugs Agency, classifies MSG as "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) or in substances that are generally declared safe.

However, why are some people dizzy and nauseous after taking MSG? Anna Maria Barry-Jester of FiveThirtyEight said it was just a psychological phenomenon called the Nocebo effect: if you believe something can cause bad things, this bad thing can really happen.

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