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umami

Umami Burger

The idea that there are four basic tastes—sour, salty, bitter, and sweet—was widely accepted until 2002 when the taste receptors for glutamate were discovered which gives food the flavor called “umami”. (Bacon, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and tomatos have lots of it.)

But of course this 5-taste model describes only the tastes detected by the tongue. Most of the flavors we identify in food come from aromas. Some research suggests that the average human can distinguish millions if not trillions of distinct odors, some of which emanate from food. So the range of flavors we can detect is quite large.

It is then strange that taste sensations but not flavor sensations are used extensively as metpahors. We routinely use taste sensations to describe emotions, personalities, facial expressions, etc. A person is a sourpuss, a smile is sweet, resentment is bitter, language is salty.  But we don’t describe persons as fragrant, minty or herbal. It is curious why taste rather than aroma is the source of metaphorical association.

But at any rate, now that umami is officially a taste I suppose it will eventually acquire metaphorical associations.

So what is it like to feel “umami”?