Earlier this week, I was invited by the Japan Society New York to moderate a discussion with Tokyo star chef Kiyomi Mikuni. His topic was "Umami and Other Japanese Culinary Secrets," though his talk also included a fair bit on the history of shokuiku, or nutritional education. The French, he told us, implemented an elementary school course on "awakening a sense of taste" as far back as 1974, and Japan has an impressive curriculum of culinary and nutrition education in place that I got a peek at a few years ago. But Chef Mikuni had bad news for the New York audience: if we had not properly been taught to recognize the five basic tastes of sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and umami by the time we were 12, the window had closed on us!
Chef Mikuni also introduced us to the pioneering Japanese scientists credited with discovering the fifth taste, umami, and let us in on the most interesting culinary secret of the night: that umami works on the principle of synergy. The reason traditional Japanese dashi is such an umami powerhouse is its unique combination of flavor compounds, specifically glutamates and inosinates. The combination of dashi's konbu (dried kelp), a glutamate, and katsuobushi (dried, cured bonito), an inosinate, actually intensifies dashi's umami punch by a factor of eight or more. No wonder the addition of a little dashi can make anything better. Chef Mikuni uses is regularly in his French cooking.
In the end, Chef Mikuni speaking through translator Stacy Smith, conceded that we Americans still had a chance of recouping lost taste-recognition potential (whew), even though we are woefully behind the Japanese and the French. So it's not too late to start experimenting with your own umami combinations. For more on how to do that, check out Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste, or this interesting Popular Science article.