The tasty secret of Umami
Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter taste sensations. It’s most commonly defined as “savoury”, but the characteristics of Umami can also be described as “meaty”, “complex” or even just “deliciousness”.
We experience the fifth taste sensation of Umami on a daily basis – in fish, meat, tomatoes, cheese and soy sauce – even though we don’t always consciously recognise it. Most people aren’t aware that Umami actually balances the taste and enhances the palatability of a wide variety of foods.
Umami-rich ingredients can often be found in the store cupboard and are part of everyday cooking.
Other Umami-rich food sources are:
- Salted Anchovies
- Parmesan Cheese
- Mushrooms (particularly Shiitake & Porcini/Ceps)
- Green Tea
When Umami foods are used, especially in combination with each other, the results are quite intense.
Our taste receptors pick up Umami from foods that contain high levels of amino acid glutamate. It’s important to understand that it’s slow cooking or ageing that makes these foods Umami. For example, raw meat and mushrooms aren’t very Umami, but cooking, curing or fermenting helps to release the key amino acids that our taste receptors pick up as Umami.
The discovery of Umami
Umami was discovered in 1908 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist at Tokyo Imperial University. He noticed a particular “savoury” taste in certain foods such as dashi, asparagus, cheese, tomatoes and meat that were neither sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Having found that the Japanese stock dashi had the most pronounced savoury taste, he focused on kombu - the seaweed used to make dashi.
After conducting much research, Ikeda went on to identify glutamate, an amino acid, as the origin of this new savoury taste sensation and called it “Umami”. The word “Umami” combines the Japanese adjective “Umai”, which means “delicious” or “savoury with “mi” which means “essence”. Since then, Umami has conquered the culinary and scientific worlds.
In the past, Umami was often associated with Asian foods – probably because it was discovered in Japan and has an Asian name. Today, we know that Umami isn’t an Asian phenomenon because its savoury and wholesome flavour is found in many international ingredients.