Our 5th Taste – Umami
|By Nell Jones - daughter, writer,
“Umami” is one of those words that you are searching for to describe the way something tastes but then convince yourself that there is no word to exist for it. Well thanks to a Japanese chemist, there is now a word for that savory, yet not exactly salty taste.
I had never heard the term “umami” before this week, yet it is the taste I am always craving whether that be me ordering in sushi once a week, drinking green tea every morning, or making my favorite mushroom risotto dinner. Think of how you describe foods like red meat, fish, mushrooms, cheeses, soy, etc.
Do they fit under the basic taste categories of sweet, sour, salty, or bitter? No, but they fit under the fifth taste, Umami, an inherent savory taste in food that is literally translated as “pleasant savory taste” in Japanese.
What Makes Umami?
There is actually a scientific reason for the taste of umami. When certain foods are cooked, the proteins are broken up and one of these specific amino acids, called L-glutamine, gives the umami taste. How?
Your taste buds respond to the L-glutamine molecule, similar to the way your taste buds work to pick up the other four taste categories. Really interestingly, and a little TMI, amniotic fluid and breast milk are high in these glutamine amino acids that make up the taste of umami.
This could explain the lifelong craving and importance of the taste. I find that foods categorized under the basic umami taste have longer lasting flavor that is more satisfying and filling as a meal.
Similarly, for the same reason we crave the sweet taste for the energy and calories, we crave umami for the protein that is made up of amino acids that our taste buds react to.
Where Does Umami Come From?
The umami taste was discovered in 1908 by a Japanese chemist named Ikeda. While the glutamate amino acid had been used in cooking for years, he recognized the taste of it to be different from the other four tastes and named it “umami”.
Later in the century, it was confirmed that this fifth taste, independent of the other four tastes, exists by the name umami.
Why Do We Care
As a chef, understanding the umami taste is important. It allows you to scientifically pair flavors together, perhaps with foods that are not usually paired together. It explains the Japanese fish sauce flavors with seaweed and miso.
It also explains why the Italians pair cheese and tomatoes, as with Parmesan cheese sprinkled on tomato sauce. I can’t say that I think about how the amino acids and molecules will pair with my taste receptors when cooking, but on a more basic level that is all it is.
Umami is also important for the switch to low sodium foods. Sodium rich foods fall under the salty taste. However, it is found that by pairing these foods with the umami flavor, the sodium levels can be reduced while keeping the flavors of the products just as appealing.
For example, broths may lower their sodium levels by a wide margin simply by adding some fish sauce flavoring, something that is full of the glutamine molecules that give it the umami flavor.
However, this discovery of umami, which is a staple of MSG, has led to the use of it in a lot of cooking and has had suggested health consequences.
Ever notice how addicting certain foods with the umami taste can be? I’ve never heard of someone eating only half of their steak or slurping down half their chicken noodle soup.
This taste leaves you wanting more, which may not be good for people who should stop eating after their second serving like me, but it is beneficial to populations like the elderly who need these nutrients while having enjoyable flavors.
There is a lot of science behind the fifth flavor umami, most of which I do not understand since I haven’t taken chemistry for years. What I do understand is that it is natural to like and crave the taste of umami, which makes it an important new taste to the list.
It clarifies and explains why certain foods taste so good together and gives an inside look on how to please people with your blend of flavors. If you heard the term umami, either from restaurants or cooking shows, now you know what it means.
And if you were looking for the one term to describe the taste you are craving for your home cooked meal, it does exist and now you know it.
Books About Umami from Amazon