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Now regarded as the fifth taste - the others being Bitter, Salt, Sour and Sweet. It was identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University.
He started experiments on broth, made from kombu seaweed, as he knew the taste he was looking for, could be found there. He then managed to extract crystals of glutamic acid (an amino acid) - glutamate. He discovered that 100 grams of dried kombu contain about 1 gram of glutamate.
It's also known as the monosodium glutamate taste, which has been used in far-eastern cooking for many centuries. The human body is very sensitive to glutamate, which is detected by a protein molecule called mGluR4. This protein is so sensitive to glutamate that all other flavours are rendered undetectable. The version used is not as sensitive as the complete version, and so doesn't mask other tastes.
Manufactured monosodium glutamate has no smell or specific texture of its own, and can be used to enhance the flavour of natural dishes.