Remember in elementary school learning about the nine planets and the four tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter? We know dear old Pluto is no longer considered a planet so we are down to 8, and to add confusion there is now what many consider a fifth taste, umami.
What is Umami?
A Japanese scientist, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo, discovered Umami. While considering why Dashi, a stock used in Japanese cooking made from kelp, made so many of the regional foods taste great he found an undescribed flavor in this commonly used ingredient. He took a closer look at kelp and devoted his time to pinpointing this mysterious flavor found in the sea plant. In 1908 Dr. Ikeda extracted glutamate, an amino acid, from the kelp and found that this was the contributor to the distinct taste.
What is the Umami Taste?
Umami has been described as a delightful, meaty, savory taste that can be difficult to pinpoint, but can be found in many of our favorite foods. Some familiar to most Americans that have a forward umami flavor are mushrooms and Parmesan cheese. Notice when you eat these foods there is a complex element that is almost nutty, meaty, and smooth in the background of the more forward flavors. Umami is described by the Japanese as more of an elemental flavor, which has been problematic to grasp in the Western world, though we coming around. In fact, many of our top chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten are adding dishes that contain high umami. Jean-Georges features a dish he calls “umami bombs.” These intense plates contain foods that are naturally high in the ‘fifth taste.’ Many big name companies are also looking more closely at umami, trying to incorporate this advanced flavor into packaged foods such as soups, chips, and frozen dinners.
“Those who pay careful attention to their tastebuds will discover in the complex flavour of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter…”
Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, Washington 1912
Umami and MSG
Many of us know the umami taste from its artificial counterpart, monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Dr. Ikeda replicated his discovered umami taste and patented MSG as a food additive to enhance flavor. It is very common in Asian countries to add a dash of MSG to dishes as we would add a dash salt. MSG is also used widely in fast food markets. While many counties and companies have been using it freely for decades, the jury is still out on MSG. Some experts say it causes insulin spikes and headaches and others say there is no problem with the additive in moderation. The good news is that umami can be found naturally in many foods!
Umami in Food
Cheeses, especially aged cheeses like Parmesan, have strong umami. Try adding a Parmesan rind to a soup pot or sprinkle a little on roasted vegetables for the full effect. Seafood and shellfish are rich in umami. High levels can found in fish like tuna or salmon. Beef, pork, and chicken also have strong umami characters. The cheeseburger is a classic sandwich with full umami flavor, including both beef and cheese. Earthy vegetables like potatoes, mushrooms, legumes, cabbage, and carrots all contain umami. One surprise on the list are tomatoes–condiments like ketchup and salsa have high umami. Many summer heirloom varieties sport the fifth flavor as well.
Next time you sit down to eat, take a look at your plate and think about the umami, you may savor this new fifth flavor too!