Does Your Story Have Umami?

Taste Magazine UmamiAs a result of the heavy response to my post last month I contacted Goodreads. I sent them both the Indies Unlimited post and a formal request to add a coupon option to their giveaway contests. I received a response, friendly and professional, that GR is always looking to improve their programs. They thanked me for my e-mail, but did not commit to adding a coupon at this point. Since we have their attention, I encourage all IU readers who agree with my post to send an e-mail to Goodreads management in support of this marketing request. Let’s keep the ball rolling and achieve our objective—increased visibility and sales following a Goodreads Giveaway. And now, as I often do, I am about to make a sharp right turn.

This month’s post is about a subject that has been rolling around in my head for weeks. Do you know what umami is? I’ll bet it’s not what you think. Umami has nothing to do with beta readers or proper formatting. It is not a protective spell you chant to shield yourself from the latest publishing scam. It is not the name of a cutting-edge fashion designer from Japan. And whether or not you realize it, your story has a flavor profile that may or may not include umami.

In addition to my monthly post here at IU I am a food blogger. This is, in fact, how my writing journey began. My obsession with delicious cuisine and elegant dining is a vice I am willing to share. Many of you have visited my blog and have remarked on the recipes I love to experiment with. So, when a new culinary word, technique, or concept catches my attention I have to research it. Umami is one such concept.

It is common knowledge that our tongues can distinguish four tastes: bitter, salty, sour, and sweet. The fifth taste is umami. Surprisingly, it is not a new discovery. Chefs have been using a form of umami, technically glutamate, since ancient Rome. It wasn’t until 1902 that a Japanese scientist discovered there was another property to umami. To simplify the science, when ingredients like shitake mushrooms are combined with other food that contains similar scientific properties, the flavor profile is greater than the sum of its parts. The science creates a synergy in the food ingredients.

A rough translation of umami is “pleasant savory taste.” We know when we are eating a meal and it has perfect balance. The five tastes are harmonious. Even if one taste seems to dominate our palate for a second or two, if the meal is properly prepared and seasoned we will, at some point, be able to distinguish the five tastes. The same, I believe is true of well-written story. We know when the story has the balance of a fine meal, be it Mama’s Brown Sauce or Corn Bread with Carmelized Onions and Apples, both recipes on my blog.

Bitter: Bitter taste adds a bite that is not always unwelcome. To mix many of the cocktails I love, bitters are required. A bitter person is angry, hurt, or resentful because of a bad experiences or a sense of unjust treatment. Their words sting, and the expression on their face is one of disgust. In the cult classic Laura, Laura Hunt interrupts New York columnist Waldo Lydecker’s lunch to pitch the Wallace Pen. Waldo’s acrid response:

“I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom… I’ll neither consider, endorse, or use the Wallace pen. I hate pens. If your employers wish me to publish that statement in my column, you may tell them that I shall be delighted to oblige.” Waldo Lydecker, Laura

Salty: Salt heightens the flavor profile of food. Even if a meal is seasoned, a small amount of salt will provide the needed accent and bring the flavors forward. Salty dialogue serves the same purpose. Consider these famous lines delivered by nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not to a smitten Humphrey Bogart.

You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”

Sour: Sour is your taste buds’ ability to identify acid. Think of biting into a lemon. A little acid added to a soup, for instance, is that final fillip that will move it past a bland finish to something extraordinary.

I suppose any note, no matter how sour, sounds like a song if you hold onto it long enough.” Dewitt Bode

Sweet: Sweet is easy except when it overdone and then it hurts my teeth. Zuzu from It’s a Wonderful Life sums it up well.

“Look, Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”

Umami: Umami, for me, is a dish that I do not want to eat quickly. The flavors melt together, and although you may be able to distinguish them, when combined they are sublime. I struggled to find you a literary example that I consider to be umami. Here is a good one.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”  Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities. Or perhaps this one:

 “Every book, every volume you see here has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengths.” The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

I would like to play a game. In your comment below pick one of the tastes I have described and share an example. You get extra points for Umami. Have fun.

Author: L. A. Lewandowski

Lois Lewandowski graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Political Science and French Literature. A passion for life lived well is reflected in her novels, Born to Die-The Montauk Murders, A Gourmet Demise, and My Gentleman Vampire, giving readers a glimpse into the world of the beau monde. Lois lives in Tampa, Florida. Learn more at her lifestyle blog, and her Amazon author page.

30 thoughts on “Does Your Story Have Umami?”

  1. Very interesting post. So now I know U mami isn’t just something my kids said when they were learning to talk. 🙂

    It’s a fun word with a cool meaning. You’ve given me something new to talk about at the next dinner party I go to.

  2. I should have read this before eating that very hot curry!

    Then again, I like very hot curry, or chilli, or other spicy dishes. Evidently umami can take many forms. As the man said: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So umami must be in the mouth of the taster. Each to his (or her) own.

    1. Hi Ian,
      I think umami can be taken a step further, as you point out. There doesn’t seem to be a specific category with the identified five tastes for heat, which is fascinating. I am not an expert on spicy food, but I prefer red to green curry, and find it to be more savory to my palate. The classification of heat is an interesting concept within taste.
      Thanks for your comments.

  3. Cut out a side of Totapuri (parrot beak) mango, close to the seed. The mango should be juvenile, just beginning to ripen, with flesh neither entirely white nor deeply yellow. Do not skin. Season with a judicious mixture of red chili powder and salt (ratio depending on your capacity to take heat). Crunch. Umami. As I write, I salivate.

    1. Hello Venkatesh,
      I am intrigued. When I eat a mango I find two tastes; the initial soft flavor and then the finish or aftertaste. Both are lovely, slightly sweet and a bit tangy. The idea of adding heat and salt is marvelous. My mother would eat a ripe pear with provolone cheese. This combination sounds odd but it works, too.
      Thank you for sharing your umami. I am going to try it. 🙂

  4. The fifth taste with the Japanese name. Oysters Kilpatrick are my favourite umami taste. Exquisite! But I do like sushi, I think that Japanese art and culture has a umami feel to it also.

    And you are right, Lois, a good story should have a balance of tastes to reach umami; beyond genre.

    Excellent article, Lois.

    1. Thanks T.D.,
      I agree that Japanese and Asian art and culture have a ‘center’ around which the other components seem to make sense. A completeness. You’re right, that is umami. The subtlety is overlooked by those who have trained themselves to only see, feel, understand, or taste one overpowering dimension.
      I have never eaten Oysters Kilpatrick, and look forward to trying them… unless they’re raw. The Norovirus has a way of doing that.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I studied Hamlet at school over 40 years ago, but these very famous words still give me a tingle – both for their beauty, and for the world of pain that hides beneath them :

    ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question—
    Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
    The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
    Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them?’

  6. Hi Lorraine,
    I googled unagi and found two definitions, eel and a ‘state of total awareness’ in Japanese Karate. Which was used in the episode?
    The show “Friends” was a good example of TV umami. I don’t think any of those actors will be able to separately replicate the group success.
    Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

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