Umami has become a buzzword; a common descriptor. But its one of the best. A mysterious word that sounds delicious just to say. Restaurants use it to describe dishes, food writers to describe restaurant dishes, diners in an attempt to describe the sensation they (think they) felt dancing around their palate.
But no one seems to know really, really what umami is. Umami bombs dropped without context, and, more importantly, without the ability to truly describe what it means/what to look for/why it matters.
We’ll do our best to tell you what umami is, what to expect, and how to impart that knowledge on others.
noun | u·ma·mi | /uˈmɑːmi/
Umami is the 5th basic taste. This everyone understands. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami describe the flavor sensations we experience when we eat, and largely determine which foods we choose to eat and when.
Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo, made the formal discovery of umami all the way back in 1908. Ikeda first proposed umami as its own taste while enjoying dashi, the Japanese kelp and bonito flake flavored stock, unable to find a current word suitable to capture what was going on in his mouth.
The culprit for this elusive flavor? Glutamate, an amino acid, found commonly in soup broths. He offer “umami” as the official name, derived from “umai,” a Japanese word for delicious.
Fast forward 90 years. While umami research had continued throughout the century, it wasn’t until 2000, after we discovered a new taste receptor, that umami was officially named the 5th basic taste.
The 5th Element?
So why does umami taste the way it tastes?
The flavor occurs as a result of chemistry between taste buds, odorant receptors, and food ingredients (like all food). There are several compounds which trigger the umami taste receptors, specifically, including glutamate (the original), a salt of glutamic acid, ribonucleotides, and monosodium glutamate (hey, MSG), potassium glutamate, and calcium glutamate. These compounds work together with the glutamate receptors on your tongue to create the beautiful, mysterious, addictive taste that is umami.
But its also much more than just chemical compound; so much deeper than simply the printable reaction of food+mouth.
People might describe umami as savory, meaty, full. A deep flavor that fills your whole mouth, body, mind, spirit.
It’s probably the most far-reaching of the basic tastes. Which is probably the reason why (or at least part of it) people have trouble pinning it down.
“This soup is salty.”
“F*ck yeah it is!”
“So is everything else I’m having for dinner.”
“And dessert will be sweet.”
Because umami is experienced in such a broad range of foods, it is often discussed through individual foods; in a much more specific manner. Sun-dried tomatoes have the free glutamic acids that end up as umami in your mouth. So does shellfish. And green tea. These are quite different in their flavor profiles, though, and you probably wouldn’t pair them. Umami is complex. It creates a symbiotic relationship between depth of flavors; unique in the how balanced the layers are to create something wholly unique in your mouth.
This, perhaps, is why it is so addicting.
And, again, also why it is so hard to pin down.
We haven’t really had the culinary terms available in the west to fully what we experience when we eat umami in foods. We’re pressured to dumb it down. We want it to be simple. At the very least, recognizable.
“Well? It is salty or what? What does it taste like? What am I putting in my mouth?”
In the simplest of terms, umami is a basic taste that increases the deliciousness of food. Yes, deliciousness. Or pleasantness. Palatability? The aforementioned pieces (MSG, IMG, etc) that make up umami don’t really taste very good by themselves, but when they come together, and are added to foods (think a rich, meaty Bloody Mary on a Sunday morning), they becomes something uniquely special.
Our tongues are simple. We only have 5 basic tastes with which to navigate the complex world of flavors and food. But the tiny sensory organs on our tongues know what they’re doing. They work together to sort through everything that hits them. They know what they like. Even if they can’t find the words to describe it.
And the result from something like umami? A taste, or, rather, an experience unlike any other.