According to popular Western belief, there are only four categories of taste—sweet, sour, bitter and salty—that have traditionally been linked with receptors on the tongue. In recent years, the Japanese have identified a fifth taste, known as umami. Umami is an amino acid sometimes described as savoriness or the taste of protein, and turns up in foods such as mushrooms, dried bonito flakes or Parmesan cheese. Foods high in umami have the benefit of reducing the human craving for salt.
Now, the Japanese are at it again, claiming to have discovered a sixth taste—kokumi. To make matters more confusing, kokumi has no taste of its own, but accentuates the intensity of other flavors by activating calcium receptors on the tongue. In a patent application, it has been described as an “imparting agent.” It’s supposedly the reason that slow-roasted meat or aged cheese tastes better.
Some American scientists are skeptical. Michael Tordoff, who works at the Monell Center in Philadelphia and actually discovered calcium receptors, says that he has no idea what the Japanese are talking about. He acknowledges, though, that we’re at the very beginning of research to understand the phenomenon of taste.
The Japanese are forging ahead. Kokumi was discovered by Ajinomoto, a manufacturer of seasonings and food products. They have already developed a kokumi yeast extract that they say can replace MSG as a food enhancer. To popularize the concept, they are sponsoring komumi cook-offs with some of the world’s leading chefs.
Even skeptics agree that we probably haven’t scratched the surface of our understanding of the process of taste. The possibilities are intriguing. Imagine Chinese food without MSG, potato chips without salt, cured meats without nitrates, and a range of taste sensations enhanced only by the natural abilities of the tongue.