What’s Umami, Mommy?
Explain the mysterious “fifth taste” to kids—with an assist from our old friend Parmesan.
Your kids might already recognize the basic four “tastes”—sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. (There are reasons why donuts just might be more popular than mustard greens among your crew.) Over time, experimenting with those elements will help them understand why their food tastes so good (or bad)—like how mixing paint colors will enhance, ruin, or create new ones. (FYI, the March edition of our Kitchen Academy subscription box, “Tongue Tied,” includes great hands-on lessons to help kids explore all the tastes, along with a recipe for the umami-packed mac above.)
What they might not grasp: Umami, the fifth taste, is an equally important but slightly more abstract spoke in the flavor wheel. With some carefully-placed metaphors and a whole lot of Parmesan, your kid will be the one dropping science on why pizza tastes so good.
How to explain umami to younger kids
“Umami” is a Japanese word that basically means “deliciousness.” It’s a taste found in all food, from tomatoes to tuna fish, but some foods have more umami than others. What does umami taste like? Savory and wonderful. It also magically makes the other four tastes stronger and better.
The best way to learn about this mystical fifth taste is to try different kinds of foods that are heavy in umami. Some kid-friendly starters: soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and cured ham. Once they’ve sampled in-your-face umami, you can prompt them to recognize subtler hints of taste number five in other foods.
How to explain umami to older kids
The whole concept of umami might sound a little wishy-washy, compared to its more instantly recognizable brethren. (No one’s calling salty flavors “mysterious” any time soon.) But there’s some cool science behind it. Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered the first umami compound in 1908, when he analyzed dried kombu—an especially umami-rich seaweed often used in Japanese cooking, like in miso soup.
The magic chemical compound turned out to be MSG, or monosodium glutamate, which went on to get a bad rap in the world of Chinese takeout. (Dubious claims about people feeling unwell as a result of eating too much MSG have since been debunked.) Western scientists weren’t sold on the whole “fifth flavor” thing until as recently 2001, when biologist Charles Zuker at the University of California, San Diego, proved that animals have specific, discrete taste receptors for MSG, like they do for salty, sweet, sour, and bitter.
Learning to use umami as a seasoning, like you would with salt or lemon juice, is as simple as cooking with it. The more umami-rich foods you combine, the more of that savory je ne sais quoi your dish will have.
Have your growing young gastronaut add soy sauce to salad dressing, sauté shiitake mushrooms for a stir fry, or grate cheese over pasta, then compare and contrast. Expand their umami lexicon with stronger and weirder ingredients: Umami occurs in aged or fermented foods, so take them on a tour of East Asia with staples like miso, fish sauce, and kimchi.
And, wait—what about this sixth taste you may have read about? One step at a time. One step at a time.
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