By: Brigitta Szeibert
Flip through a contemporary food magazine and you will most likely come across the word umami. Short yet densely packed with implications of cultural finesse, the word umami is strewn across culinary literature like chocolate morsels in homemade cookie dough. Over the last seven years umami has become an “it” word in the American culinary scene. To illustrate, I combed the archives of the culinary magazine Bon Appétit. Bon Appétit is owned by Condé Nast, a colossal company that reaches over 100 million consumers according to its company website. Beyond Bon Appétit, Condé Nast manages iconic media titles including Vogue, Glamour, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and GQ to name a few. Reviewing articles published in Bon Appétit with the word umami or monosodium glutamate from 2008 to 2017 reveals three key trends in the way the sensation of umami is commonly introduced to the reader.
Before identifying these contexts, it is interesting to note that the term umami was employed far more often in Bon Appétit than monosodium glutamate. For every article that used the term MSG, there were roughly six articles that used umami. Presumably, this owes to Bon Appétit’s culinary viewpoint, which centers more on taste and flavor than scientific significance. Monosodium glutamate, which bears the connotation of chemicals and artificiality, does not sound as appetizing as its trendier counterpart umami. Consequently, the preference for umami may owe, in part, to its marketing potential.
One of the contexts in which individuals use umami involves a form of Orientalism (see: Edward Said’s Orientalism) surrounding umami’s Japanese origins. In this context, articles present umami as exotic and mysterious, bringing foreign flavors to Western dining. Recipes disproportionately use umami to describe traditionally East Asian (and more specifically Japanese) products like miso, soy, and seaweed as opposed to other foodways, a term food scholars use to describe a [for instance, cultural, ethnic, or national] group’s shared values, traditions, and practices around eating (see: Miso, Soy Sauce Just Got Adorable, You Know Nori—Now It’s Time to Try These 4 Flavorful Seaweeds). This reinforces the idea of umami and monosodium glutamate as fundamentally Asian phenomena. Interestingly, in more recent articles, authors have increasingly extended the application of the term umami from the more traditional Japanese setting to include Indian cuisine as well. Two examples of Indian products associated with umami are chaat masala, a pungent spice blend, and asafetida, a dried root similar to an onion or garlic (see: Let’s Chaat: A Guide to Indian Snacks, Indian Egg Dishes to Know and Love (and Eat a Lot of)).
Umami is also fascinatingly situated in the context of health food. Although MSG is generally portrayed in popular media as unnatural and therefore unhealthy, umami is discussed as a potential solution to making healthy, bland food more palatable to the average consumer (see: The Peanutty Broccoli Side That’ll Make You Want to Eat More Broccoli.) Articles in Bon Appétit often portrayed umami as a resourceful way to upgrade mundane staples like cauliflower and eggplant (see: All Winter Vegetables Taste Better Roasted, Especially This Cauliflower).
Furthermore, umami is portrayed as a way to further develop vegetarian and vegan dishes. In this context, umami-rich ingredients are seen as an alternative to mimic the depth in flavor produced by meat (see: Yes, Vegetarian Gravy Is Possible (and Delicious)). Umami is portrayed as a revolutionary, novel component that makes vegetarian food more satisfying.
Hence, umami holds significant value because it may help prevent ecological demise by circumventing animal agriculture. From a culinary perspective, it presents the possibility of maintaining a high level of taste and creativity without relying on animal products. Alternatively, in the traditional omnivorous culinary scene, umami is valuable because it serves as a marketing tool to reinvent ordinary dishes. Capitalizing on umami’s long-established Japanese history, culinary experts refashion the mundane with an ostensibly “exotic” flair.
One might conclude from this research that MSG plays a minimal role in culinary conversation. Instead, umami finds more popularity as a flexible term that connotes both sophistication and utility.