We've partnered with Ajinomoto Co. Inc. to celebrate our favorite taste—umami—with a series that digs into its history, its complexity, and its many, many culinary applications. First up: What exactly is umami?
Umami is one of those alluring buzz words TV chefs throw around when they want to describe something delicious—but if asked to explain it, could we? It's a taste, sure, but what exactly is it...and why do we all like it so much?
Even among people who write about food for a living, umami can be controversial. Just this past January, former NYT food critic Mimi Sheraton tweeted out: “I'm convinced umami is not a flavor, but rather a pleased perception of combined flavors. No single umami seasoning.” It kicked up a bit of discussion. San Francisco Chronicle food columnist Nik Sharma replied that the taste receptors for umami were “not fiction.” Arielle Johnson, who has a PhD in flavor science from UC Davis, tweeted out a long thread explaining the scientific underpinning of umami, as well as theories on why it's sometimes viewed suspiciously in the western world.
To explore the matter, we're going back to the basics. Whether you and umami are old pals or you're just getting know each other, here's everything you've ever wanted to ask...and then some.
What exactly is umami?
To get really specific about it, the taste of umami mainly comes from glutamate, which is one of the amino acids that occurs naturally in proteins. The tongue has taste cell receptors (think of them like taste buds, but just for umami) that are activated by glutamate. These taste receptors send sensory information to the brain saying, hey, this is super delicious and then send a signal to the stomach telling it to prepare for digestion. (Basically, we're hard wired to like umami because it signals the presence of amino acids that are important for things like...you know, staying alive.)
Glutamate is present in varying levels—and the more glutamate, the more umami taste—in all kinds of foods. It has a few other effects, aside from its savory flavor. It also amplifies and rounds out other flavors, literally making foods taste better overall.
That's cool. But what does umami taste like?
You know that rich, savory taste that lingers after you eat something like tomato sauce, long-cooked stews, barbecue ribs, or even...ketchup? That's umami. Here’s a little experiment you can do to really zoom in on the taste: Take one sundried tomato and chew it 20 times before swallowing. You’ll notice sweet flavor and some acidity. But there will be a savory flavor that coats the tongue and lasts a long time. That’s umami.
I learned about sour, salty, bitter, and sweet in school. Why is umami a newcomer?
The concept has actually been around for awhile, but only gained traction in the US relatively recently (like over the past decade). Umami, which translates to “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese, was first identified by Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda at Tokyo University in 1908. He was trying to figure out why his wife’s soup was so good. She told him it was its base of dashi—the Japanese soup stock made from konbu (a type of dried seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes)—which is used in a lot of Japanese cooking. From there, he isolated the glutamate in konbu as the source of savoriness.
Ikeda figured out how to isolate free glutamate from vegetable proteins, and then he tested stabilizing them separately with potassium, calcium, and sodium. The version stabilized with one part sodium—aka monosodium glutamate, otherwise known as MSG—turned out to have a strong umami taste, was easily soluble in water, and kept well when stored, all ideal for a seasoning.
Why did the rest of the world take so long to catch onto the idea?
It’s hard to say. Dr. Ikeda published a paper—first in Japanese in 1908, and later in English in 1912—and shared it at an international conference. In it, he presented umami as a new taste. There may have been some cultural stigma behind why the larger scientific community didn’t accept Ikeda’s proposition a century ago. That said, the receptor for glutamate on the tongue wasn’t discovered until 2002; the results were confirmed by other scientists shortly thereafter.
But people all over the world have been concentrating umami in their foods for centuries without even realizing it, using condiments or ingredients naturally high in glutamate. The Romans had garum, a fermented fish sauce that is super umami rich. In Southeast Asia, there are a range of fermented fish sauces and fermented shrimp pastes. Mexico has mole. Turkey has slaca, a tomato paste.
So what other foods are rich in glutamate?
A lot of foods you're (probably) very familiar with have high levels of glutamate: tomatoes, mushrooms, asparagus, Parmesan cheese, and seaweeds like konbu, as well as prepared foods like canned soup, ramen, and snacks like Doritos. Parmesan grated over pasta with tomato sauce doesn't just add cheesy flavor and salt; it boosts the umami. Add some mushrooms to that tomato-Parmesan combination and you’re really kicking it into high gear.
As far as umami goes, what should I keep in mind when I'm cooking?
When it comes to stocking your fridge and pantry, many of the ingredients mentioned above, plus things like miso paste, tomato paste, dried mushrooms, anchovies, soy sauce, and fish sauce, are great umami boosters to keep on hand. Proteins like pork, beef, and shellfish, as well as veggies like tomatoes, mushrooms, and seaweeds, all are rich in glutamate, and therefore umami. For ideas on exactly what to cook, you can check out the recipes on this page as well as the suggestions listed here by ingredient.
Dashing soy sauce onto fried rice, adding a Parmesan rind to soup, topping your hamburger with bacon...these are all different methods of cranking up the umami factor. To a certain extent, we already (unconsciously) add umami whenever food seems like it needs something extra. That missing something is often umami.
But now that you're an umami expert, odds are your cooking will never be missing that je ne sais quoi. [Insert chef's kiss here.]
Do you have any favorite umami dishes? Share them in the comments!
We've partnered with Ajinomoto Co. Inc. to celebrate the fifth taste, and its many, many culinary applications with a series that's all about umami. You can also learn more over at the Umami Information Center.