We all know sweet, sour, bitter and salty, but what about the other one Umami? It is often referred to as savoriness and one of the five basic tastes.
Apparently in 1985 at the first Umami International Symposium in Hawaii, the term Umami was officially recognized as the scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides. ‘Umami represents the taste of the ‘amino acid L-glutamate and 5’-ribonucleotides such as guanosine monophosphate (GMP) and inosine monophosphate (IMP)’. It is described as a pleasant “brothy” or “meaty” taste with a long lasting, mouthwatering and coating sensation over the tongue. Its fundamental effect is the ability to balance taste and round the total flavor of a dish. Umami clearly enhances the palatability of a wide variety of foods.
Discovery of umami taste
Glutamate has a long history in cooking. Fermented fish sauces (garum), rich in glutamate, were already used in ancient Rome. In the late 1800s, chef Auguste Escoffier, who opened what was the most glamorous, expensive, and revolutionary restaurant in Paris, created meals that combined salty, sour, sweet and bitter tastes. He had not, however, known the chemical source for this unique quality. Umami was not properly identified until 1908 by the scientist Kikunae Ikeda, a Professor of the Tokyo Imperial University. He found that glutamate was responsible for the palatability of the broth from kombu seaweed. He noticed that the taste of kombu dashi was distinct from sweet, sour, bitter and salty and named it umami. Later, a disciple of professor Ikeda, Shintaro Kodama, discovered in 1913 that dried bonito flakes contained another umami substance. In 1957, Akira Kuninaka realized that the ribonucleotide GMP present in shiitake mushrooms also conferred the umami taste. 18 When foods rich in glutamate are combined with ingredients that have ribonucleotides, the resulting taste intensity is higher than the sum of both ingredients. This is why Japanese make dashi with kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes, Chinese add Chinese leek and cabbage with chicken soup or Italians combine Parmesan cheese on tomato sauce with mushrooms. The umami taste sensation of those ingredients mixed together surpasses the taste of each one alone.
Properties of umami taste
Umami has a mild but lasting after taste difficult to describe. By itself, umami is not palatable, but it makes a great variety of foods pleasant especially in the presence of a matching aroma. But like other basic tastes, with the exception of sucrose, umami is pleasant only within a relatively narrow concentration range. The optimum umami taste depends also on the amount of salt, and at the same time, low-salt foods can maintain a satisfactory taste with the appropriate amount of umami.
Foods rich in umami
Many foods that may be consumed daily are rich in umami. Naturally occurring glutamate can be found in meats and vegetables; whereas inosinate comes primarily from meats and guanylate from vegetables. Thus, umami taste is common to foods that contain high levels of L-glutamate, IMP and GMP, most notably in fish, shellfish, cured meats, vegetables (e.g. mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, etc.) or green tea, and fermented and aged products (e.g. cheeses, shrimp pastes, soy sauce, etc.).
Our first encounter with umami is breast milk. It contains roughly the same amount of umami as broths. There are some distinctions among stocks from different countries. Japanese dashi gives a very pure umami taste sensation because it is not based on meats. In dashi, L-glutamate comes from sea kombu (Laminaria japonica) and inosinate from dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) or small dried sardines (niboshi). In contrast, Western or Chinese broths have a more complex taste because of a wider mixture of amino acids from bones, meats and vegetables.
Some Umami rich foods you should try:
– Sauces: naturally brewed soy sauce, Tabasco, Worcester sauce, fish sauce
– Cheeses: Parmesan, mimolette, aged cheddar
– Curds: crème fraiche, yoghurt, fresh goats cheeses
– Fungi: porcini, truffles, shiitake
– Preserved fish: canned anchovies, sardines
– Fresh seafood: oysters, abalone, kombu (seaweed)
– Pickles: gherkins, kimchi (cabbage)
– Meat: smoked bacon, Parma ham
– Drinks: black tea, miso soup
– Alcohol: ale, wine, Japanese sake
Umami shouldn’t be confused with Dashi, another of those enigmatic Japanese tastes.
Dashi differs from other kinds of stock in that, rather than using simple ingredients boiled over a long period, as is the case with Western bouillon, it uses carefully prepared ingredients, patiently matured which are only soaked in water or heated briefly so as to extract nothing but the very essence of the ingredients’ flavor.
Dashi most commonly utilizes a combination of kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), but other ingredients used to make dashi are shiitake mushrooms and niboshi (small dried fish). Dashi making has evolved over long period of time.
Despite its hidden role, dashi could be said to be the heart of Japanese cuisine, not because of the prominence of its own flavor, but because of the way it enhances and harmonizes the flavors of other ingredients. The secret of Japanese cuisine is this art of enhancing and harmonizing.