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July 17, 2008 8:45 AM   Subscribe

How do you explain umami to kids?

My friend is working for a summer day camp and the ages of her campers are 11-14. She would like to do an activity about the 5 tastes. She has no problem coming up with explanations and examples for bitter, sweet, salty and sour but she is having a tough time trying to figure out a way to explain umami. How do you explain it in a way that kids will understand? And for a possible future activity, what dishes can they try to make (they can have 2-4 hours for it)?
posted by spec80 to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Give 'em some MSG, man. Let them taste it themselves; I don't think you can really "explain" it any more than you could explain the concept of "blue".
posted by Greg Nog at 8:49 AM on July 17, 2008

Yeah. Let them taste it. They know what salty tastes like because they've tasted salt, not because you explain it. They'll know what umami tastes like because they taste MSG.
posted by winston at 8:51 AM on July 17, 2008

You might want to have something to mix it in. Straight MSG doesn't really taste much like the effect that it has on food. Maybe a bit of sauce of some kind.

You should be able to get MSG at a grocery store.

As for a dish, tacos are a pretty good group-cook thing, if everyone can be trusted with a knife. Lots of little things to cut up: tomatoes, onions, cilantro, oregano, cheese, avocado, etc. Maybe that's a little too simple for 4 hours of cooking, though.
posted by echo target at 9:05 AM on July 17, 2008

chicken broth with
chicken broth without
all other things the same

now, do they sell chicken broth without glutamates?
posted by caddis at 9:11 AM on July 17, 2008

It's a stranger concept than salty or bitter, so you should start with that. Explain that, for a long time, people didn't even know that a different "taste" existed, and it was only discovered recently. "It's hard to describe what it tastes like, so we're going to eat some things that have umami so you can see for yourself."

I would make two relatively bland foods, say rice or lentils, without any other seasonings. Make one with an umami ingredient, one without. Have them compare the taste between the two.

And even if it's based on apocryphal evidence, a lot of people are freaked about MSG. I wouldn't want my kids being fed straight MSG or MSG mixed into other things without my knowledge. Even if it is exactly the same ingredient, use something "natural" like mushrooms or seaweed to get the umami flavor.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:15 AM on July 17, 2008

Miso soup, marmite on toast, thai fish sauce. All quite easy things to have them taste. I also think it's unwise to have them guzzling neat MSG. I haven't had a spoonful of it for years, but I think it actually doesn't really have the umami taste when it's neat.
posted by roofus at 9:27 AM on July 17, 2008

Seconding Deathalicious on the don't-feed-them-straight-MSG thing and adding that MSG can induce terrible migraines in some people.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 9:30 AM on July 17, 2008

Barenaked Ladies recently released an album of original kids' songs called Snack Time. The song Food Party does a quick run down of various tastes and textures and ends with Umami showing up and everyone else reacting like "WTF?" It doesn't explain umami, per se, but it demonstrates how difficult umami is to explain.

The MP3 can be previewed and/or purchased at Amazon for 99 cents, or the whole 24-track album for $8.99.

Even though it's aimed at children, and I have none of my own, I still find a lot of the songs to be amusing: Crazy ABCs, 7 8 9, and A Word for That are a few of them.
posted by owtytrof at 10:23 AM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

One activity would be for the kids to guess which common household food item balances all five flavors: Ketchup (see "Tomato Ketchup" under "History")
posted by dinger at 10:34 AM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've always heard umami explained as "savoury". I know it's not quite that simple, but at least kids should have a concept of what savoury is.
posted by car01 at 10:36 AM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding car01. I didn't know anything about it until moving to Asia, and "savory" clicked for me.
posted by FuManchu at 10:43 AM on July 17, 2008

Explain that, for a long time, people didn't even know that a different "taste" existed, and it was only discovered recently.

Actually the taste has been known for a long, long time. The recent discovery you make reference to is the identification of the specific taste receptors on the tongue that detect umami, not discovery of the taste itself.
posted by Brian James at 11:37 AM on July 17, 2008

For the record pure MSG does taste strongly of umami, I have a bag of it I bought from a Chinese grocery. Its taste is kind of strange because you instantly recognize it from a million things you've eaten, but you can't quite place it because it's always in the background. I think that ramen has the strongest pure MSG taste in the supermarket aisle, followed by Doritos. As for natural foods, I think that cooked mushrooms have the closest taste to pure umami (or at least pure MSG). Other foods that are high in umami tend to have strong flavors that push the umami to the background.
posted by TungstenChef at 11:59 AM on July 17, 2008

Isn't Kikkoman running an ad campaign right now talking about umami (and, obviously about how their soy sauce is the perfect representative of it)?

Your friend could show the ad... or you know, just give 'em some soy sauce. It's like MSG without the paranoia.
posted by SuperNova at 1:09 PM on July 17, 2008

Glutamates other than MSG also have a very strong umami flavor. You'll find glutamates in most meat, in seaweed and mushrooms as has been mentioned, and also in parmesan cheese, which features that flavor very powerfully. I've agreed that "savory" covers the concept pretty well, but I'd be surprised if your kids have any clue about that word, and most people who do know the word think of it as synonymous with "not dessert". I think one good way to describe it would be to say "It's why spaghetti tastes so much better with cheese." You can also use the difficulty of describing the flavor as an activity in itself. Have the kids try to describe it after tasting different things and see what they come up with.

As has been pointed out, it's been known for a long time, but English happens to lack a word for it, and recent discoveries have helped pin down how the taste is picked up by the tongue. The controversy about MSG has also been mentioned, but there's no evidence to support the idea that it has ill effects. It's still in a lot more food than you'd expect (I heard somewhere* that it's often subsumed under the header "natural flavors"). Still, there's a good chance that one of the parents would freak out if they heard you were having kids taste it by itself. Besides, it tastes terrible pure (imagine giving powdered citric acid as an example of sour).

*I can't remember where. Possibly Good Eats.
posted by ErWenn at 2:16 PM on July 17, 2008

I just thought of a snack food that has an even more pure MSG flavor, Funyuns. They don't even bother distracting you with a lot of salt or corn flavor, they taste like onion powder and pure MSG. I like the idea Deathalicious had about teaching them by comparing a range of foods high in umami with foods low in it. They should hopefully be able to pick up the common flavor underlying the high umami foods. Be sure and have something that's high umami/low salt so the kids don't confuse the tastes.
posted by TungstenChef at 2:33 PM on July 17, 2008

Besides, it tastes terrible pure (imagine giving powdered citric acid as an example of sour).

Lol, I must've burned out all my tastebuds from eating too many spicy foods. I also have a bag of pure citric acid I got from a Chinese grocery in my pantry and sometimes when I'm cooking I put a tiny pinch in my mouth because I think it tastes really good. Then again I like those super sour candies too.
posted by TungstenChef at 2:37 PM on July 17, 2008

Seconding roofus on miso soup. I would suggest instant miso soup. You can have them make it themselves.
posted by elmono at 2:53 PM on July 17, 2008

People have been mentioning mushrooms above as a source of umami. On their own I always feel the umami is a bit subdued, but if you take dried shitake mushrooms and soak them in very hot water, the broth that is left over has a very strong umami flavor. Another good choice would be vegetable bouillon, which usually has yeast extract but not MSG.

Also, speaking as someone who was a vegetarian kid, please make sure this activity can be enjoyed by kids who don't eat meat. Nothing is worse than being in an activity focused on food that you can't eat.
posted by Deathalicious at 4:19 PM on July 17, 2008

1. Give them something sweet. Ask them to describe the taste.
2. Give them something salty. Ask them to describe the taste.
3. Give them something sour. Ask them to describe the taste.
4. Give them something bitter. Ask them to describe the taste.
5. Now give them something none of the above, but heavy with the ol' umami. Ask them to describe the taste.
6. Profit!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:48 PM on July 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've read that salt on tomatoes naturally creates MSG. Not having eaten a tablespoon of MSG crystals, I don't know how it compares, but it might be a nice, more "natural" sounding experiment (to the parents, at least).

And I'm all in favor of using the word "savory", rather than umami--it would explain the sense a lot more to the kids. I have no idea why the equivalent English word isn't used.
posted by jsmith77 at 5:21 PM on July 17, 2008

Yeah, tomatoes are a really good natural source of glutamates. You could serve the kids cooked tomatoes and explain that "umami" is the reason that, even though tomatoes are a fruit, and a fairly sweet one, you will almost never find a dessert that features them. Avocado ice cream? Plausible. Tomato ice cream? Unthinkable.
posted by arianell at 5:42 PM on July 17, 2008

A snack or other food with glutamates is not going to teach them umami. It is so unlike other flavors that I think you need to give them one same food with and one without glutamate and let them compare the difference. I recommended chicken broth up above as it very well highlights this taste sensation but other foods will do. If you give them cheese they are not necessarily going to be able to distinguish the umami flavor from any other cheesy flavor. The other tastes are easy because they already know them. If they didn't the same would apply. To experience salt to a newbie you would say try a french fry with no salt and then a well salted fry. Just throwing some new food at them with a high umami content will only confuse them, whereas an A vs. B taste test with and without, or at least strong and weak, will more clearly delineate the flavor. It may also educate your own palate. The chicken broth test is pretty enlightening. Accent really makes a difference.
posted by caddis at 6:24 PM on July 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Please be careful giving children MSG -- some people have strong allergic reactions to it. Even a small amount makes me lethargic and headachy for days afterwards, and it also, shall we say, vigorously stimulates the sinuses. (It's like a horrible cold, minus the cold.)

This post at WikiAnswers suggests a number of alternatives you could use. Fermented fish sauce seems to be their top pick.
posted by Georgina at 11:04 AM on July 19, 2008

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