A bit about umami

It has been known for hundreds of years that the human tongue can detect four basic or 'primary' tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But a fifth basic taste has been gaining traction as a food phenomenon. Elena Cho explains.

A bit about umami

So why haven’t most of us heard of it?

Known as umami (pronounced you-MAH-me), this taste was proposed by scientists in Japan in the early 20th century and has been gaining ground ever since. Umami, which translates from the Japanese as “flavour” or “delicious taste”, is really difficult to identify and even more difficult to describe in words. There isn’t a particular sensor on the tongue that can identify it nor does it produce a physical sensation on the tongue or mouth. Some have characterised it as a “savoriness”, “brothy” or even “meaty” taste. Others have used the less helpful word “complex”. Others have simply labelled it the “mmm” taste.

Even from a scientific point of view, it’s not so easy to understand what exactly umami is. Scientists assert that umami is essentially a savoury taste that is brought on by 1) glutamate, a type of amino acid, and 2) ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate. Glutamate and ribonucleotides can be found in foods such as meat, fish, vegetables, and dairy products.

Perhaps the best way to get a handle on umami is to pinpoint specific foods that are high in umami elements. The following chart details such foods:

Seafood

Kombu
Seaweed
Katsuobush (dried bonito flakes)
Niboshi (small dried sardines)
Bonito
Mackerel
Sea bream
Tuna
Cod
Prawns
Squid
Crab
Oysters
Shellfish

Meat    

Beef
Pork
Chicken      

Vegetables

Tomatoes
Shiitake mushrooms
Enokitake mushrooms
Truffles
Soy beans
Potatoes
Sweet potatoes
Chinese cabbage
Carrots

Other

Green tea
Miso
Soy sauce
Marmite
Fish sauce
Worcestershire sauce

As shown, umami ingredients are a part of both Eastern and Western cuisine. In Eastern cuisine, the umami taste can be found in beans (particularly soy), grains, seafood-based products, and mushrooms, to name a few. In Western cuisine, it occurs in many fermented or cured meat and dairy products, condiments such as Worcestershire sauce and Marmite—two British staples, and most notably the tomato, a food with intense umami elements.

Achieving a strong umami taste in your cooking is primarily a matter of using umami ingredients. Combining one umami ingredient with another, or even adding sodium to your umami-rich dish, will magnify the overall umami effect. A dish such as pasta with Bolognese sauce ranks particularly high on the umami scale, given that it contains tomatoes, meat, and salt. The same goes for miso soup or even a seafood stew.

Whatever the dish, it’s likely that learning to identify umami in food will take some time not to mention practice. For now, you may not be able to recognize it when you encounter it, but at least you can be content to know your dish has that X factor… or better yet—the mmm factor.

Chef Laura Santtini has produced Taste No. 5 with added umami. Taste No. 5 is a combination of all these and can be used to boost sauces, soups, pastas, roasts, and many other savoury foods. It costs £2.99 for 60g, from Selfridges and Waitrose stores nationally.

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