28 Sep Food52: Why Is Umami So Hard to Describe?
Communicating a sensory experience to someone who doesn’t know what you’re talking about is hard. How would you describe the color red to someone who’s colorblind? How might you explain the aroma of onions sautéing in butter to someone who’s never smelled it?
Meaty, savory, rich, salty, even charred are words people use to describe umami. If you dab a bit of MSG—as in, the isolated amino acid glutamate attached to sodium—on your tongue, it tastes a little like dried meat. Yet plenty of Americans, including chefs, struggle to decipher or find words to describe it, even though umami is present in everything from Doritos and ramen to tomatoes, and is as old as fermentation and cooking.