Now that the whole world knows what umami is (that’s a Japanese word), I’d like to talk about xian (that’s a Chinese word, not to be confused with xian of a different tone, which means salty, or Xi’an, the ancient capital of China).
I’m surprised no one has mentioned it yet.
What is it?
Well, it’s basically the equivalent of umami in Chinese, with a discriminating factor.
First, a little etymology from someone who is not an etymologist:
Whereas the word “umami” was invented in the early 1900s by Kikunae Ikeda, the Japanese chemist who first isolated and identified monosodium glutamate (or, MSG), to describe the “meaty savoriness” of his discovery, xian is much older. I don’t know exactly how old it is, but I do know that the word is part of the ancient Chinese name for Korea (朝鮮; in pinyin “chao xian”), which dates back at least a few centuries (it is still used today to refer to the country of North Korea).
The most helpful clue to understanding its meaning is found in the way the character for xian is written in Chinese. It’s a portmanteau, if you will, of the character for fish – 魚 (in pinyin, “yu;” phonetically, “yü”) – and the character for lamb – 羊 (in pinyin, “yang,” phonetically, “yong”). Together, they become xian – 鮮 (phonetically, “shien”); with the character for fish on the left, and the character for lamb on the right.*
So, what does it mean? Well, as I said above, the simple answer is that it’s the Chinese equivalent of umami, which we know refers to the “meaty savoriness” of MSG, a flavor that claims no English word. However, if I’m to be entirely accurate, xian is more specific. It is a subset of umami. Whereas umami is attached to monosodium glutamate, and thus applies to everything that has its flavor, xian sits to the more delicate side of that flavor spectrum.
While a plate of cured meats may be umami, it would not be xian. Neither would a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, though it be smothered with umami-rich tomato sauce and showered with Parmesan cheese. But pasta alle vongole would be xian, so would young spring lamb, or drunken chicken, or Chinese salt-cured cockles, which are usually served cold. Xian is temperature blind. There’s even a Chinese dish called yang yu xian – 羊魚鮮 (or lamb-fish xian) – surely someone’s witty, if not too-literal attempt at culinary poetry (I’ve never had it, and I’d be curious if anyone could ever convince me that it could possibly work).
But above all, xian seems most commonly used to describe broths and soups. Its truest examples are chicken stock and steamed clam juice. After all, the word xian is the second half of the Chinese word for “fresh” – xin xian – 新鮮 (phonetically, “shing shien”). There something light and cheery about it.
Oh, and one more thing: in Chinese, you say that something is xian, instead of saying that something has xian – it’s no different than saying something is salty, or sweet, or bitter (even though in English, you could also say that something has saltiness, or sweetness, or bitterness).
* I’ve also heard xian pronounced xuan (that’s pinyin; phonetically, it sounds something more like “shoe in” at ten times its normal speed).