Right now, I am dreaming of real tomatoes. Real, real tomatoes… not those ping pong balls they pass off as tomatoes at the grocery store. The tomatoes at the grocery store have more in common with a Nerf ball than they do a real tomato.
But what is it that makes a garden ripened tomato taste so damn good. I mean, the tomatoes in the store have a tomato flavor (well, the ones that are sold as “vine-ripened”, anyway), but it seems pale and pathetic when I remember what the taste of a real tomato is like. It is not that a store bought tomato is sweeter, or more sour, or more bitter. It seems to be that they are just… less… a lot less.
It turns out that there is a reason for this and its name is umami. While that may sound like a game that sends children in movies to terrifying places and my children to bed with nightmares, it is not. It is in fact the secret life of your tongue and taste buds. That’s right, your tongue has been steppin’ out on you all these years and you didn’t even know it. Well, not exactly, you were there. Â You can kind of think of umami as the mÃ©nage trois (actually mÃ©nage cinq) in your food life.
We all grew up learning about the four basic food tastes — sweet, salty, bitter and sour. These had been established since the days of the ancient Greeks when the philosopher Democritus decided (apparently on a whim) that there were 4 flavors. No more, no less and anybody who thought differently could go fly a toga.
But, if there is one thing we have learned over the past few decades is the big fancy medical and science ideas of the Western world can’t hold a dim candle to the mysteries solved by the Eastern world. (And if you don’t agree with that, than you explain who were the test guinea pigs for acupuncture.)
In not too ancient Japan (circa 1908), a chemistry professor named Kikunae Ikeda isolated a flavor he called Umami, which roughly translated to English means “really, really yummyâ€ (no joke, it does mean “tastes really goodâ€). The compound he discovered was later patented as a flavor agent. The East embraced it. We here in the West said “What could a modern scientist figure out better with fancy smancy scientific thingies than old guy who made up the four flavors over 2000 years ago? We ain’t buying it.â€ (Hmm, funny how the tables turn). The West got their asses handed to them when in 2000, a receptor for umami was identified.
Chances are if you have eaten Chinese food (and just about anything from a can), you have had that patented substance. It is called MSG. And no, despite the bad press it got a few decades back, it is not bad or dangerous. In fact, it is a naturally occurring substance. Glutamate (the G in MSG) appears in a lot of foods, including… drumroll… fully ripe tomatoes. That is what your grocery store tomato is missing, as they are not really truly ripe and therefore lack the richness and depth that umami brings to your garden grown tomato.
So, during these dark and dreary last days of winter, while you are pining for the flavor a real tomato, you now know who to thank. “Umami is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all tomato gardeners.â€