What is umami?
Until recently, Western scientists thought that there were only four basic tastes: salt, sweet, sour and bitter. These are unique tastes that cannot be created by mixing the others. However, according to the Umami Information Centre, Japanese scientists discovered a fifth flavour in 1908. Apocryphally, chemist Dr Kikunae Ikeda thought tofu hot pot tasted better when he added kelp (a kind of seaweed), and he wanted to know why. By looking at the chemicals within kelp, he discovered this fifth flavour.
Umami has a meaty, fermented taste that has three key properties:
- Spreading across the tongue – scientists believe that sweet and salty flavours are mainly sensed on the tip of the tongue, whereas umami is sensed all across it
- Persistence – even after taking a sip of wine, the meaty flavour should still be tasted
- Saliva – this fifth flavour triggers saliva, which is key to taste and swallow food
What does ‘umami’ mean?
It is originally a Japanese word which can mean ‘tastiness’ or ‘deliciousness’.
Chef Alexandre Bourdas explains:
If I were to define umami, I would call it a comfortable taste. So I use it to give diners greater pleasure from their food. I want to keep making dishes that tap the power of umami in original ways, ranging freely beyond the bounds of convention and genre.
What creates this flavour?
Without getting too technical, the main components of the fifth flavour are glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. Glutamate contains amino acids, which can also be found in protein. And of course, protein can be found in meat. This glutamate is what gives the unique flavour, and explains why it naturally occurs in meats such as beef and ham. Processes such as aging and fermenting increase this fifth flavour even more, as they break down proteins into amino acids.
What foods contain these flavours?
It can most commonly be found in bone broths or soups, as well as in other foods such as mushrooms or cured ham. Food that has been fermented or aged, such as cheese, miso, and soy sauce, as well as fermented drinks such as sake, also contain these flavours.
Some classic British foods also have big umami flavours – Worcestershire sauce such as Lea & Perrins and Marmite have that intense kick. Marmite gets this because it is made from yeast proteins – yet another food that contains amino acids.
Are there health benefits?
It is sometimes thought that dishes that have strong flavours of umami tend to use less salt, as they already have a rich and savoury taste. Therefore, using more of these foods such as beef and cheese might help lower salt intake, which in turn assists in lowering high blood pressure. There is also some scientific evidence that suggests that these flavours also help with digestion, but this has yet to be definitively proven.
What recipes use these flavours?
- Nick Lee’s recipe for butter poached abalone won the 2018 World Umami Forum Cooking Competition
- A dish of grilled shiitake mushrooms by Peter Gilmore is a vegetarian option
- Anna and David Kasabian’s recipe for maxed-out meatloaf from their book The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami is the ultimate rich and meaty meal
Saucy Dressings recipes:
- Mixed umami nuts
- Momentous mushrooms on toast
- Truffled beef and mushroom lasagne
- Japanese meatballs
- Baked Asian sea bass