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Who's Umami?

Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter.

For years, we thought that explained it: the four tastes. The tongue's purview. The north, south, east and west of taste buds. The soup-to-nuts menu of what was possible sans schnoz. But no.

Now there's umami. Coined by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, the Japanese scientist who discovered that the taste particular to dried seaweed comes from the glutamate therein, umami means "yumminess" in Japanese. (Way to stack the deck, Dr. Ikeda.) It's a subtle taste, sometimes described as meaty or savory, that combines well with other flavors to bring them forward and give them more body.

Fun fact: Dr. Ikeda went on to introduce monosodium glutamate, or MSG, as a seasoning in Japan. In so doing, he created an Asian taste sensation that has never foundered, not even in the face of a health scare that the FDA has worked to debunk. Who knew?

But back to umami. You'll find it in spades in parmesan and nori (duh), a bit less so in cured ham, Emmental, and tomatoes. Good cheddar has it, as do scallops and asparagus. Tuna, chicken, and mushrooms: also umamic.

Who cares? Your tongue, of course. In the 1980s, scientific studies found receptors on the tongue that respond to umami, sealing Ikeda's discovery in the annals of food history.

Oh—and umami's the first taste, as far as we know, to have its own promotional organization. The folks at The Umami Information Center would like you to know as much as possible about the fifth taste, and maybe they'll inspire you to found The Bureau of Bitterness or the Sharply Salty Society.

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