Umami, the 5th taste

Sweet, sour, salty and bitter are the four commonly known taste sensations. Umami is the fifth, though it is much less known. 

The discovery of Umami

Japanese chemist, Professor Kikunae Ikeda, discovered a fifth taste in 1908. 

Asians tend to cook more with broth than with fat. In an experiment to investigate the composition of traditional Japanese dashi broth, he found that although it didn’t taste salty, sweet, bitter or sour, it still tasted good. He named the new taste “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.

What is Umami?

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 what Umami actually does is balance the taste and enhance the palatability of a wide variety of foods.

Although Umami was only scientifically recognised as the fifth taste relatively recently, it is something that we all experience as small babies because breast milk contains around 20 times more Umami than cow’s milk (Source: Ninomiya,K. Food Rev. Int., 14, 177-211, 1998). 

Umami alone doesn’t have any particularly flavour, but it does round off the overall flavour of a dish. With the right seasoning, Umami can transform any kind of cuisine from anywhere in the world into a very special flavour experience.

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 foods such as tomatoes, parmesan cheese and mushrooms.

Umami also plays an important role in low-salt diets because foods with Umami have a more intense flavour and additional salt isn’t usually necessary. Soy sauce is a great Umami seasoning and a natural alternative to salt.

These foods are Umami-rich:

  • Parmesan cheese: Europeans are familiar with the Umami of parmesan cheese. It’s a hard cheese that spends more than two years maturing, so it has a high content of free glutamate that is actually visible to the naked eye. The little white crystals that develop during the maturing period and give the cheese its unique flavour are glutamate.
  • Tomatoes: Would you have thought that Umami is responsible for the intense flavour of tomatoes? And did you know that the tomato didn’t become a popular foodstuff until quite recently? The Europeans who conquered Central and Southern America were sceptical about the red fruit, so they brought it back as an ornamental plant. It was the Italians who discovered that the tomato was edible and they have been using it ever since to create appetizers and main dishes with the Umami factor.
  • Soy sauce: In Asia, many people encounter Umami in fermented seasoning sauces. Used on rice, vegetables and fish, these sauces are an indispensable part of Asian cuisine. They are so rich in Umami that they balance the taste and complement the flavour of all kinds of dishes. Kikkoman’s naturally brewed soy sauce also has the Umami taste. In the natural brewing processthe proteins are split and natural glutamate is released, giving the soy sauce its high Umami content.