What Is Umami?
Traditionally, there are four widely recognized categories of taste — sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But there’s another flavor that isn’t as recognized: umami. “Umami” is Japanese for “delicious taste,” and best described as savory and rich. Soy sauce, anchovies and parmesan cheese are all foods that would be classified as having an umami taste.
In Paris during the late 1800s, a well-known chef named Escoffier created veal stock, and with it, umami. However, there was no name for this new decadent taste.
Around the same time in Japan, chemist Kikunae Ikeda was eating a popular soup called dashi, made from seaweed, meat, cheese and tomatoes. He noted its rich taste, but couldn’t place it within the boundaries of sweet, bitter, salty and sour. He retreated to his lab and discovered the flavor’s root: glutamate. Ikeda published his discovery, but nobody paid it any attention.
Ikeda also began mass-producing an artificial umami flavoring that is still used today — monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Despite how MSG has become a controversial buzzword, the Food and Drug Administration classifies it as an ingredient “generally recognized as safe.”
What Makes Food Umami?
So why is umami so much more obscure than the other four tastes? It wasn’t until the early 2000s when umami was finally accepted as a fifth taste, and it all has to do with your tongue.
Each taste corresponds to receptors located on the tongue. When you eat a food that is sweet, it is broken down into molecules and activates certain receptors. When you eat a salty food, different receptors respond.
What separates umami from other tastes is the glutamate, which is found in most living things and breaks down as you cook meat, age parmesan cheese or when a food undergoes fermentation. This breakdown of glutamate produces L-glutamate, an amino acid specific to the umami taste.
It was only when scientists took a closer look at the human tongue and discovered that we have L-glutamate receptors that this “new” taste was defined. In honor of Ikeda, they called the taste “umami.”
Foods Containing Umami
It may help to think of umami as “savory.”The taste is found in many Asian foods such as seaweed, miso and soy sauce, as well as Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and cooked or cured meats.