Speaking off the toque: Kanji Okubo, chef at Kaneyama Japanese Restaurant, 9527 Westheimer, (713)784-5168.
Q. There are repeated references to the Japanese word umami in the culinary press and even in scientific publications. The scientific articles have suggested that umami is an actual flavor, a "fifth taste," triggered by monosodium glutamate molecules coming in contact with specific taste receptors in the tongue. The word, however, is at least 1,200 years old, predating the science of chemistry. As a working chef from Japan, how would you define umami?
A. Basically, sweetness, but it is difficult to explain. It is a very delicate deliciousness, or something like this. For instance, put some sugar in green tea. If it is too much, it is not good, but a little makes it taste better. It is a moderation of tastes. Umami varies from region to region in Japan. What people consider umami in Tokyo -- in a noodle dish, for instance -- may have more oil, more soy sauce, than a noodle dish prepared in the Western or Osaka style, which uses lighter sauces. So an Osaka person visiting Tokyo may consider the noodle dish to be too strong, wrong. We say umami when something is very delicious. [Okubo then writes the ideogram, using the kanji writing system, for umami. It is a compound ideogram, consisting of uma for "delicious" and mi for "taste."]
Your past experience tells you when something is too sweet or too dry, or not sweet enough or moist enough. When it is perfect, then it is umami. A person may complement a chef by saying a dish is umami rather than very good or very tasty. A child cannot know umami. It takes experience to know umami.