Conventionally, Western thought and the English language recognise only four taste groups: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It’s often asserted that receptors for each taste group are clustered in regions on the tongue, but while there’s some evidence to greater sensitivity in certain regions, experts agree that “most taste buds, regardless of location, appear to be sensitive to many taste qualities over a wide range of concentrations”.
Western thought has only recently come to recognise a fifth flavour, sometimes described as “savoury” but more often labelled “umami”, a borrowing from Japanese. A Japanese chemist, Dr Kikunae Ikeda, named the taste umami in 1908, and according to Wikipedia umami was first acknowledged as a scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides in 1985.
In Chinese it’s been called “xi?n” for over 3000 years, and for me most strongly associated with broth – whether that’s a Cantonese pork bone, winter melon and woodear soup; the broth inside Shanghainese xiao long bao (little steamer buns); Vietnamese ph?; or the artificial flavourings of Maggi chicken soup.
Xi?n is a little more difficult to find in vegetarian and vegan cuisine, though Buddhist temple restaurants always seem to manage it with some fantastic combination of soy sauce, tofu skin, and about a dozen types of fungus. Seaweed and moss are probably the single, naturally-occurring foods where I sense it most strongly – maybe also shiitake mushrooms.
Some suggest that the flavour can be found in tomato, cheese, red wine, asparagus, olives and fresh corn, but I’m sceptical about these examples. A few news stories about the fifth flavour almost seem to suggest its presence in all grown-up, gourmet foods celebrated in Western foodie culture, but that really isn’t the case. Xi?n/umami is a much more prevalent flavour in Japanese and Cantonese cuisine, for example, than in Indian or Italian or even Sichuan cuisine. It’s no accident that glutamates were discovered, isolated, reproduced and marketed in Japan.
The purest form will always be in MSG, which I know by its Chinese trade name, Ve-Tsin. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found Ve-Tsin was a twentieth century invention. I thought everyone had a jar of it on their kitchen shelf, between the salt and the sugar. I thought everyone checked the shape of the crystals or dipped in a tasting finger to make sure they were using the right seasoning. If you’re not sure what umami tastes like, try some MSG on its own. Otherwise, it’s pretty close to the difference between Promite and salt.
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While umami is gaining recognition, and even gathering hype, it still hasn’t entered common English parlance, especially as an adjective. I still can’t quite say, as I would in Shanghainese, that a dish is “so xi?n my eyebrow hairs are falling out”. To say that something is abundant in umami makes it sounds like a nutrient rather than a flavour.
But the buzz around the fifth flavour presents a fantastic marketing opportunity, which any entrepreneur worth their weight in Ve-Tsin would take. Laura Santtini is one of them, with her Taste No. 5 Umami Paste.
“… in a niche field like cuisine which has long relied on the fusion of multiple cultures to make advancements in what/how we eat it’s a bit precious and culturally essentialist to hermetically seal off certain cultural foods from newcomers to that culture who are genuinely curious about new flavours”
But that in a society that “has a history of taking traditional forms of non western knowledge and subsuming it into our dominant culture by finding ways to rebrand them”, Santtini’s product is:
“as close an attempt as you can get to capitalising on the traditional history of east asian culinary knowledge by presenting it as your own personal innovation”
She points out that Santtini’s
“cultural capital and solid reputation in the relevant area of expertise (re. whiteness) transforms that alien cultural artifact into something ‘safe’ and ‘familiar’ (cf. tomatoes! parmesan! not that nasty msg stuff ick!) for the casual (white) market to consume.”
Fellow Tumblr-er ourcatastrophe replied, “there is a definite race panic in anti-MSG stuff”, and I would have to agree. But I think Western cuisine (or at least Anglophone cuisine) also values purity, in a different way at least to Chinese cuisine.
In Chinese cuisine and language there are at least eight adjectives for distinct flavours: tián (sweet), su?n (sour), xián (salty), xi?n (savoury/umami), k? (bitter), là (hot, or piquant), and má (numbing – like Sichuan pepper). It’s not necessarily that other flavours aren’t recognised in Western thought, it’s that they’re subjects for scientific analysis rather than essential to cooking and eating and living with a mouth on you. I can be cynical about how much language reveals about a culture, especially in regards to things like gender, but in this case I think there’s something to it.
In my humble opinion as an eater and not a cook, Chinese cuisine is strongly focused on flavour, while modern Australian cuisine is more focused on produce. Different Chinese cuisines are known by their dominant flavours, and dishes are described by their flavours while ingredients will vary. Creating delicious flavours, whether in sauces, soup or a mix of seasonings, is a major part of a chef’s skill.
Produce is much more important to contemporary Australian cuisine, in which I feel the use of seasonings is minimised. Each dish tends to have one or two main ingredients, and the other ingredients are chosen to complement the flavour of the primary ingredient.
This is most obvious with meat – if you flick through an Australian cookbook, you can usually clearly see the cuts of meat. Cooking meat is kind of like value-adding to what should be great produce. If you flick through a Chinese cookbook, often you won’t be able to tell what cut or even what animal it is. The first thing you probably notice is the type of sauce – whether it’s a sweet glaze, a savoury gravy, red-cooked in sugar and soy sauce, a hot oil.
I might be exaggerating the differences, and there’s other factors at play like how anxious Australia is about health and how you don’t eat Chinese food with knives. But I think Australian cuisine often comes across bland to Chinese palates while Chinese food can seem over-flavoured to Australian palates.
Both toujoursgai and ourcatastrophe mentioned that Masterchef prioritises certain skills and techniques which reinforce Western cuisines as default and essential. I wonder also how the values of Australian cuisine differ from other cultures – what concepts and qualities it prioritises. But more on Masterchef later …