As recently as the 20th century, much of the Western world was familiar with 4 fundamental flavors: sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness. However, you’ve probably experienced a moment where you can’t quite put a finger on what you’re tasting because it doesn’t quite fit into any of those categories. If this has happened to you, you’ve most likely experienced what we now consider to be the fifth taste — the umami flavor.
What Is Umami Flavor?
Umami is a loan word from the Japanese language, and it means a “pleasant savory taste”. This phrase was coined by the Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, when he proposed this 5th taste category in 1908.
It would not be until 1985, however, that umami would come to be internationally recognized as an official taste.
Today, umami is used as a scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides, which are typically characteristic of broths and cooked meats. While the umami flavor is mild, it has a long-lasting aftertaste that stimulates the throat, the roof of the mouth, and the back of the mouth. When used properly, it works synergistically with other tastes to enhance the flavor profile of a dish, but a high concentration of umami is not a pleasant taste.
Unlike the other four tastes, which are each detected by specific regions of the tongue, umami can be detected by most taste buds regardless of their location.
The Discovery of Umami
Glutamate is greatly responsible for the umami taste and has played an important role in cooking for a long time. Some notable examples are garum from ancient Rome, murri from Arab cuisines, or soy sauces from China. Although this fifth taste was not identified, in the 19th century chefs like Auguste Escoffier used its savory qualities to combine with other tastes to create unique flavors.
Umami was first discovered by Kikunae Ikeda when he realized the distinct taste of kombu seaweed broth attributed to the presence of glutamate and was different from the other four tastes. His disciple, Professor Shintaro Kodama, later discovered a second umami substance from dried bonito flakes, the ribonucleotide IMP. When these two substances were present in the same dish, they created an intense taste that would otherwise not exist if the substances were consumed individually.
The umami taste has become more popular as people learn about it and has been used to leverage the taste of low-sodium dishes to maintain a satisfying flavor. You may have heard of “umami bombs,” where chefs create dishes that have intense and explosive savory flavors.
Regular people can also create umami bombs at home, with a little help from some monosodium glutamate (MSG). Although this umami enhancer has been deemed a safe ingredient by the US Food and Drug Administration, many people are still skeptical of its usage.
In 1968, a biomedical researcher, Robert Ho Man Kwok, wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine. The contents of the letter described an unknown illness speculated to be caused by MSG used in the foods cooked by Chinese restaurants. From then onwards, this umami enhancer had a bad reputation. Many Americans still actively avoid MSG now, with the misconception that it is harmful to the body.
However, in actual fact, MSG occurs naturally in many foods and can be produced by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, and molasses.
Now that you’re more familiar with what umami is, it’s time for you to try some foods that deliver this unique taste!
Meats: fermented fish, shellfish, cured meats, meat extracts
Vegetables: mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, celery green tea
Others: broths, cheese, shrimp paste, fish sauce, soy sauce, nutritional yeast, fermented and aged foods with yeast/bacterial culture, vegemite, Marmite
The umami taste may have only recently become widely known, but it has been around for a long time. This fifth taste is mild on its own but brings a world of wonderful and enhanced flavors when combined strategically with the other tastes.
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