The Intricacies of Umami and MSG

The Intricacies of Umami and MSG

 


What makes ramen delicious? Depending on who you ask, you will get many different answers based on personal preferences. However, we can safely say that delicious ramen is one with an abundance of umami. But what exactly is “umami”?

Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. With the discovery of glutamate receptors in human taste buds, umami was identified as a distinct taste sensation. It’s also been discovered that the stomach has glutamate receptors connecting them to promote digestion and the sense of fullness.  People can recognize umami when they consume these proteins due to the abundance of glutamate (amino acid). It can be said that we instinctively notice the presence of this essential nutrient.

The birth and evolution of ramen in Japan developed with umami deeply associated in the food culture. A typical example of umami is the basic Japanese soup stock, Dashi, which is made of kelp rich in glutamic acid and dried bonito rich in inosinic acid. Ramen has also evolved as a combination of these umami-containing elements. Such as Shoyu (soy sauce) and kombu which contain glutamic acid while inosinate acid is found in tonkotsu soup and dried bonito flakes.

The relationship between ramen and umami is closely related to chemical food additives such as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). There are numerous ramen shops that add small amounts of MSG as an ingredient to their soups. The quality of ingredients used in soups is not consistent so the taste inevitably changes. Therefore, by adding small amounts of MSG, shops can compensate for changes in taste or umami.

However, some shops have "delicious" food by adding a large amount of MSG to their soup made at a low price. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there is no evidence of health hazards related to the consumption of MSG, leaving ramen shops to continue to add it to their soup so it becomes "delicious" without regard to the flavor of ingredients or the nutrition.

It has become quite common to add food additives like MSG in food preparation and their existence has surely made our lives more convenient.  But once the tongue and taste sensations get used to the flavor of these additives, some people find they no longer enjoy the food that doesn’t contain them.  They feel as if the food made with natural ingredients is bland with no taste.

It was originally thought that the food we craved instinctively was delicious. In other words, what the body considered as necessary nutrition did, in fact, taste good. When artificial ingredients like MSG trick our taste buds and are consumed more than necessary, it is entirely possible that these additives knock our senses out of whack.

 Ramen Jiro's famous Jiro-style ramen 

There are those that believe that ramen is just a guilty pleasure and love it that way. In Japan, a good example of this type of ramen is called Ramen Jiro. The distinctive feature of Ramen Jiro is its rich pork tasting soup which contains a large amount of soy sauce and MSG. Heaps of bean sprouts, a large piece of braised pork, and tons of thick, homemade noodles. Additionally, customers can choose whether to add garlic or not, specify the number of bean sprouts, and decide on how fatty they want their ramen to be based on their preferences. This is truly the prime example of ramen as junk food. The intensity of strong flavors combined with the umami, the fat, and the humongous portions can be addictive. There are many enthusiastic fans and shops that serve it to boost their popularity as they continue to see large crowds of people lining up for a bowl.  

 

lidaShouten, Shoyu Ramen 

 The polar opposite of this is Iidashouten, one of Japan’s higher ranking ramen shops. The shop is located in a hot-spring resort area called Yugawara. The shop is definitely not conveniently located; however, it draws so many ramen lovers the staff has to hand out numbered tickets to the large crowds of customers visiting the shop. The broth in Iidashouten’s shoyu ramen is made simply and naturally from only chicken and water.

 

Tsuta, Michelin-starred ramen restaurant 

 And then we have Tsuta, one the most highly reputed ramen shops with a Michelin Star. Their menu utilizes a combination of various ingredients to create new savory flavors but they have three signature soup bases which include a chicken broth, a seafood broth with ingredients such as bonito flakes, and shellfish broth. The shop adds tare (sauce) to these soups in order to blend various types of umami such as glutamic acid, inosinic acid, and succinic acid. This synergy makes it possible for customers to relish in the savory flavors of the soup over and over again.

There is a variety of ways of thinking about umami and it all differs depending on the maker. Certainly, ramen that has various additives such as MSG can be tasty and each type of ramen attracts different people.  Still, it seems like we should get back to how people originally distinguished taste. We’re not only talking about what the tongue and the brain say tastes good but taking into consideration that the ramen that tastes good is ramen that has the nutritional ingredients that are the root of umami.

Whether you are the ramen chef who prepares the ramen or the customer who will enjoy it, there are various ways of thinking about it and can’t each opinion be correct? Either way, the connection between ramen and umami is deep so makers of ramen should consider how to make ramen that truly has umami and set the world on fire with passion for this amazing food.

 

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