December 8, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The fifth sense

By |2018-03-21T19:02:56+01:00October 27th, 2014|"In Provincia"|
Puttanesca sauce is an Italian flavor bomb.

nteresting things happen when we put food in our mouths. We taste and smell at the same time. Our brain perks up. Smell stimulates the perception of aromas while taste conveys notions of sweet, sour, salty, bitter — and umami.

Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda first identified umami, the Japanese word for “savoriness” or “deliciousness,” in 1908. In 1985 it was scientifically acknowledged as a fifth basic taste after sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. Umami can be explained in terms of the mouthwatering, coating sensation some fish, seared meat, broth and certain mushrooms have on the tongue.

People taste umami through glutamate, an amino acid commonly found in the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG). Since humans have specific glutamate receptors, scientists consider umami to be distinct from saltiness.

In food, the umami taste is based on glutamate content. As a result, umami-rich foods, such as soy and fish sauce, are seen as flavor enhancers. Umami ingredients, which the brain welcomes and taste buds immediately pick up on, enrich how we perceive taste. Asian cuisine commonly uses MSG as a kind of “deliciousness additive.”

By now you are asking what does this have to do with Italian food?

Flavor enhancers have a long history on the Italian peninsula. In ancient Rome garum, a pickled sauce made of fermented fish (considered an ancestor of Worcestershire), fetched a high price. Ruins of garum factories still exist throughout territories Rome once occupied.

More modern Italian cuisine contains a vast array of umami foods. Parmesan cheese is packed with glutamate. Cured meats, anchovies, ripe tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, capers, porcini and olives are each umami-rich ingredients that add depth and flavor to recipes even when used modestly.

This “deliciousness” factor explains the global popularity of Italian foods. Take tangy puttanesca sauce, which seems simple enough. But the ingredients, including capers and olive oil, make it come alive.

Puttanesca sauce is a joyous flavor bomb. But please keep it simple. Use bronze-drawn pasta and sun-ripened tomatoes. Make sure the capers are preserved in salt and the anchovies packed in olive oil. Select sweet, firm, flavorful olives, fruity extra virgin olive oil, and fresh garlic and parsley. And please, no cheese. A flavor bomb doesn’t need to be an atomic one.

Puttanesca sauce (recipe serves 6)

  • 1 pound (500 grams) dried pasta.

  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped.

  • 1 tablespoon salt-packed capers, soaked in water and drained.

  • 5 oz (150 gr) Kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped.

  • 2 anchovy filets.

  • 1 small dried red chili.

  • Extra-virgin olive oil.

  • 2 (14 ounce/400gram) cans of diced-crushed tomatoes.

  • 1 ample handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped.


— Sauté the garlic, capers, olives, anchovies and chili in 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for a couple of minutes.

— When softened, mash the anchovies with the back of a wooden spoon. Then add the tomatoes to the pan with the garlic, capers, olives and anchovies, cover and simmer for 10 minutes until sauces thickens slightly.

— Cook the pasta in plenty of salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain and transfer the pasta to the pan with the hot sauce. Add chili pepper if using. Stir quickly, adding the fresh parsley, and serve.

About the Author:

Letizia Mattiacci wrote the "In Provincia" column from 2011 through 2019.