The discovery of umami as a fifth flavor is important because it gives us deeper insight into how taste works. Not only does it give chefs another color in their palette, it demonstrates the complexity and subtlety of food as an art form. The brothy, palate expanding effects of umami show that flavors are not static. They evolve on the palate with tensions and releases that are akin to the tensions and releases in music. Furthermore, although we sense the boost in flavor even when not explicitly focusing on it, to really understand umami requires reflective eating—its distinctive flavor is so subtle it can be isolated only by paying careful attention to nuances. Sure, we’ve been implicitly enjoying umami for centuries in soy sauce, dried meat, tomato paste, aged cheese, etc. But a generic description “tastes good” is no substitute for the ability to highlight this specific flavor and make it alluring, which we can now do since it has been isolated as a distinctive taste.
In addition, the effect that umami has on other flavors is an example of synergy—the creation of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Even when umami is buried beneath other flavors so it can’t be detected it is affecting how we perceive those flavors and producing unpredictable pleasures. There is much going on beneath the surface of the flavor experience. I recently made two batches of beef chili, one with added umami (a little soy sauce, an anchovy, and tomato paste) and one without. The difference was remarkable. The one with added umami was beefier, with the characteristic brothy taste, and fewer viney notes from the tomato.
It is like the counterpoints of several simultaneous melodies that develop a synergy that means more than each single melody. It enhances intensity like having a volume knob on the mixing board. Critics of food as an art form have long argued that flavors are simple and immediately accessible requiring no reflection or aesthetic attention to discern and thus unworthy of serious consideration. But as we discover more about taste it becomes clear this dismissive attitude is unwarranted.