Umami and the foods of classical antiquity

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by Robert I Curtis
published on 01 December 2012

Umami is the taste of foods that are rich in glutamic acid and 2 ribonucleotides, 5#-inosinate and 5#-guanylate. This distinctive taste of modern Eastern cuisine, which is finding a receptive audience in the Western hemisphere, characterized many dishes that ancient Romans consumed 2000 y ago. Romans enjoyed numerous foods that are identified today as containing significant amounts of natural umami substances and frequently used fish sauce as a condiment in their recipes. Fish sauce imparted to Roman dishes a moderately salty, slightly fishy taste that combines synergistically with other foods to create the umami flavor. Fish sauce derives from the hydrolysis of fish in the presence of salt primarily through endogenous enzymic proteolysis. Its simple production process, low cost, and ability to enhance the taste of many foods has made it the basic condiment for traditional dishes consumed in many Southeast Asian countries. Fish sauce also has important nutritional value, primarily in the form of amino acids. Because ancient Romans made fish sauce in the same way and with the same resources as modern fish sauce producers of Southeast Asia, the amino acid profiles of the 2 products are probably nearly identical. Archaeological sources indicate that fish-processing centers operated throughout the Mediterranean area, and processed fish was an important element in long-distance trade. A close study of the remains of the Roman city of Pompeii indicates that fish sauce was a thriving business that rendered the popular condiment accessible to people of all social classes.

Umami is the typical taste of Eastern cuisine that is again beginning to find a receptive audience in the Western hemisphere; it was apparently the taste that defined much of the cuisine of the ancient Roman world 2000 y ago. Umami denotes the taste of foods rich in glutamic acid and 2 ribonucleotides, 5#-inosinate and 5#-guanylate. These substances occur naturally in various meats, fruit, vegetables, and certain processed foods, such as cheese, fish sauce, and soy sauce. Although Romans did not have all of the foods we enjoy today, including tomatoes and spinach, they did consume many of the foods identified today as containing significant amounts of natural umami substances. These include vegetables such as carrots, mushrooms, cabbage, asparagus, peas, and onions and such fruits as grapes and apples. Pork and chicken were favorite meats, although Romans also ate beef. Seafood included sardines, mackerel, tuna, oysters, and prawns. Our knowledge of these ancient Roman umami foods comes from literary, art-historical, and archaeological sources.

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol.90 (2009)



Written by , linked by Jan van der Crabben, published 01 December 2012. Source URL: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/90/3/712S.full.pdf.

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