Umami: the taste of something indescribably delicious, like Pata Negra

More than one would draw a blank when challenged to explain Iberian ham, what it tastes like and what it can be compared with to somebody unfamiliar with it. If asking an ordinary citizen to describe its flavour following his gustatory experience, the safest would be to make reference to the lightly salty touch, to cured meat and to nuts. And it would fall short; it would be vague and incomplete. In this explanation it’s difficult to define the nuances that would be lost on those not particularly used to it. Because, what do you really know about Pata Negra? What makes it so tasty and long-lasting on the palate?

Our whole lives we have been taught in school that the four flavours are sweet, salty, sour and bitter. However, in the early twentieth century the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda identified a new concept which he called umami (literally, “delicious taste” in Japanese). This new flavour, unclassifiable as any of the other four, is closely related to the presence of certain amino acids in food: glutamic acid and ribonucleic. The combination of both in foods and recipes also helps to enhance the flavour of the ingredients that compose them. Umami is found in foods such as kombu seaweed, tomatoes, mushrooms, Parmesan, salted anchovies or cured meat.

Picture of Kikunae Ikeda Picture of a pata negra ham being sliced

Kikunae Ikeda (photo from Wikipedia) summarized the taste of jamón de bellota in one word.

Molecular theories aside, the named “fifth taste” is characterized by prolonging the pleasant aftertaste and producing salivation. It would come to be something as abstract and sensory as the impression of the exquisite, the perception of the tasty, a potentiation of good taste, but taste itself. Pata negra ham has had the privilege of being one of the foods listed as umami and thus has become part of the Olympus of flavours. The Ikedia hypothesis, ratified by subsequent studies, gives an acceptable explanation, scientifically speaking, of the king’s unconventional taste of Spanish cuisine.

Perhaps everything has its scientific proof and it’s a matter of pure chemistry, but for those who are not experts in molecular chemistry and live in conceptual ignorance and trust in the truth of our taste buds, we will retain the magic of tasting Iberian jamón de bellota and we experience the inexplicably and unclassifiable delicious taste.

Discover the umami in Iberic and serrano hams of Ibergour.co.uk

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