Umami: A Primer
You may be aware of the four basic tastes, as taught by the following (since debunked) tongue map: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. But there is an elusive fifth taste that many Asian chefs try to stimulate through their food. That taste is umami. The word umami in Japanese means "pleasant savory taste," which is about as good a description as you're going to get, as the taste is hard to pinpoint. But let me try describing it anyways.
At its most basic, umami is a sensation. It is a savory mouth feel. At its most concentrated, umami will cause your mouth to involuntarily salivate. It is literally mouthwatering. People have described umami as being "meaty." In my estimation, it is what makes food taste good.
The taste was first isolated by Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor in Tokyo. He noticed how the addictive taste of kombu, or seaweed, cannot be attributed directly to any of the four known primary taste. There is a certain savoriness that escaped description. He investigated into the matter by looking at the chemical makeup of the food and discovered seaweed has an abundance of glutamates, an amino acid. As it turns out, our tongues have specific receptor for glutamate, which cemented umami as a basic taste within the scientific community.
The taste of umami derives chiefly from the breakdown of protein, whether through the process of fermentation, aging, or drying. Such processes increase the pungency of a certain flavor to the point where the essence is felt both on the tongue and in the back of the throat. It is more of a complementary flavor, working to enhance other present tastes. Subtle in impact but noticeable when it is absent, umami is an intrinsic part of any Asian meal.
The foremost purveyor of the umami effect comes from a chemical that has become a bit of a bugaboo among eaters: monosodium glutamate. Yes, MSG. You may be asking, isn't MSG bad for you? Well yes, in the way sugar and salt can be bad for you. When consumed moderately, MSG is no more nefarious that the common sugar or salt. There has not been any conclusive link between MSG and headaches. Nevertheless, many people swear off the additive and Chinese restaurants go out of their way to advertise not using the additive. MSG sensitivity is a real phenomenon, but it's not nearly as widespread as it may seem. If you don't suffer any outward adverse effects from MSG, I suggest you embrace this wonder seasoning. Or at least embrace umami.
For those who want to steer clear completely of food additives, there is yet hope. Umami naturally occurs in many foods, like the aforementioned Kombu Seaweed. Among Western foodstuffs, parmesan and anchovies are particularly rich in glutamates and thus umami. Ripe tomatoes and mushrooms also contain large amounts of glutamate, making them good choices for vegans and vegetarians looking for that satisfying, meaty flavor.
Want to evoke umami in your own kitchen? Many of the Japanese food products on our virtual shelves offer umami in spades. Bonito Flakes are another great source umami, and are a traditional additive to dashi and miso soups. Sauces are another way to quickly infuse umami in your meals. Both Oyster Sauce and Fish Sauce have abundant amount of glutamates, making them lip-smacking choices for your dishes.
For more ideas on who to use your newly-grasped knowledge of umami to your advantage, head over to our Recipe Section. For example, you may harness the umami potential of miso paste by using it as a sauce component, as demonstrated in this delicious Marinated Pork Recipe.
You may have read this blog and still aren't sure what exactly is umami. Well, it wouldn't be any easier explaining sweetness to a martian. Just know that it exists and that it is in the food you crave and love. It is not a flavor of the month, but a taste to stay.