Have you ever felt like you were missing the words to describe a particular taste? It wasn’t sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Could it have been umami?
Whilst it is almost impossible to put a finger on it, umami has been described as a full-bodied taste. It’s “meaty,” “savoury,” enhanced. We might just say it is “better.”
Over a millennium ago, seaweed was added to soup stocks in various Asian countries to make it taste better. In Japan, this resulted in dashi, a stock made of kelp and fish flakes.
Dashi is important because it led chemist and professor at the Tokyo Imperial University Kikunae Ikeda to umami. Fascinated by what made dashi so tasty, Ikeda discovered what would go on to be known as the fifth taste, umami.
Finding that glutamate (glutamic acid), which is present in a lot of food, including kelp – seaweed – was responsible for the tastiness of certain foods, the Japanese chemist created Ajinomoto seasoning and there is a 100% chance you have tasted it before. We now know Ajinomoto as monosodium glutamate, or MSG. This is the most popular seasoning in the world and yet, most of us do not know why we find it so tasty.
As human beings, we get a taste for umami early on: breast milk contains glutamate and is therefore umami. The fifth taste is found in an array of ingredients, from mushrooms to cured meat. “The umami in many foods is accentuated once their glutamates have been broken down through the processes of fermentation, aging, or curing,” explains the Table Agent website. This is why Parmesan and soy sauce have more umami than Brie or edamame. Other foodstuff that contain umami include a range of meats and fishes, tomatoes, asparagus…
Difficult to define, the very existence of umami has been disputed. Is umami really a fifth taste or is it just a flavour; a combination of flavours or a myth?
After its discovery by Kikunae Ikeda at the beginning of the 20th Century, scientists weren’t so sure about this “savoury” taste so central to Japanese cuisine. By the beginning of the 21st century, the all important taste receptors for umami were discovered and it was “somewhat” officially accepted as the fifth taste, with only a few scientists still questioning its existence and definition. Professor Barry Smith of London University's Centre for the Study of the Senses is reported in The Guardian as saying: "If you think of what has umami, it's not obvious that there's something in common with all these things, and in lab tests, westerners struggle to consciously detect it."
Whether you can “detect” umami or not, you would be hard-pressed not to notice the difference between raw meat and cured meat. Which one do you find better? That “better” taste is what Ikeda named umami.
If you’re wondering why we – well, some of us – can taste umami, the answer is simple: proteins! We can taste sweet because of energy, salt to alert us to minerals, sour for acids and bitter to stop us from poisoning ourselves. Umami, however? “Glutamate is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of proteins. So by developing a taste for umami, human beings could detect this scarce resource,” explains Sam Kean on the Science History Institute website. Umami is all about proteins! And no, scientists do not know why some vegetables low on proteins like mushrooms are so high in umami…
In our mouths, umami has its own receptors and is therefore considered to be the “fifth basic taste,” but it isn’t that simple and the fact that it took us so long to figure out this “fifth” taste even existed raises questions. There is a lot still to be discovered about our taste buds and their abilities to distinguish different flavours. Some scientists are even now looking at some potential sixth taste!
One thing is for sure: umami is yummy. It makes everything taste better and we are not going to complain. We'll leave the question of whether it is a flavour, a taste or some mythological enhancer to the scientists. Pass me that bowl of dashi!
About the author: Sarah Kante is a culture and entertainment writer with over a decade of experience. Her passion for travel has led her to explore the world extensively, from Europe to the Pacific, Asia to the USA. When she isn’t on the road, checking out cultural events or writing, you can find her in the kitchen, trying to master recipes from all over the world. When she has the time, she also writes a travel blog, Sarah Does Travel Writing.