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What Is Umami? The Fifth Basic Taste

What Is Umami? The Fifth Basic Taste


Many of us are aware of the different types of taste the human mouth can perceive. In school, you might have been taught the four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. 


But did you know that there is actually a fifth type of taste? It soars above all the rest, and many types of cuisines, namely Japanese cuisine, put a great deal of focus on chasing it. 


That taste is umami. 


By learning about umami, your eyes and taste buds will be open to new ideas about flavor and eating. So let’s dive in and start chasing the delicious flavor of umami. 

 

What Is Umami?

Umami is a Japanese word that translates to “savory.” Umami is that rich, savory taste that just fills your mouth with flavor. It’s distinctly different from other tastes like sweet and salty. There’s a deep, richness to umami that isn’t present in other tastes. 

 

Why Is Umami Referred to As the Fifth Basic Taste?

The reason why umami is called the fifth taste is simply that it was discovered the most recently. Scientists only became aware of umami in the early 20th century and weren’t able to prove its existence until decades later. 

 

What Does Umami Taste Like?

The main taste of umami is savory. Think about the rich flavor of meats like pork and beef or the unique sensation of shiitake mushrooms

 

What Is the Science Behind Umami?

Umami wasn’t discovered until the early 1900s. To qualify as a new taste, it must be uniquely distinguishable from what already exists, and there have to be unique nerve receptors for that taste on the tongue. 


The flavors of umami come from an amino acid called glutamate. When glutamate is present in foods, it triggers specific taste receptors that cause those feelings of umami in the brain.

 

When Was Umami Discovered?

In 1907, Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, discovered umami by studying the Japanese kelp broth called dashi. He was able to identify umami as a distinct and unique taste with a scientific paper published in 1909. 


During his studies, the Japanese chemist was able to isolate glutamate into a salt form called monosodium glutamate, or MSG. This seasoning quickly became a staple for Japanese chefs to enhance the umami of any dish. 

 

What Are the Origins of Umami?

However, umami was not globally accepted as the fifth taste until the year 2000. It wasn’t until then that the glutamate receptors were identified with the taste of umami. 


So, although umami’s true origins like in Japan with Kikunae Ikeda, it did not become widely known until the 21st century. 


Truly, Japan is the birthplace of umami. After Ikeda’s work, Japanese cuisine as a whole had a massive shift. The main focus of their food became bringing forth rich umami and getting as much of it as possible into a dish.

 

How Can I Create Umami Flavor in Food?

If you want to make meals full of rich umami flavor like the Japanese, you just have to use the right ingredients and cooking techniques. Here are some ways to enhance your dish’s umami flavor. 

 

Use Ingredients Rich in Amino Acids

The first thing to do is to cook with umami-rich foods. Remember, the flavor of umami comes from the chemical glutamate, which is an amino acid. So the best way to get umami flavor is to cook with more amino acids. 


Meats and cheese have higher levels of glutamate and glutamic acid. So cooking a dish with these things as the star of the show is a great way to get more umami flavor in your meals. 


But vegetables can also bring a lot of umami to the party as well. Tomatoes, carrots, and even sweet potatoes have higher levels of glutamic acid that will definitely up your umami game. 

 

Add Mushrooms and Onions

One of the best ways to give something more umami flavor is with mushrooms and onions. Shiitake mushrooms in particular are a great source of umami flavor. Much of Ikeda’s important work was done with shiitake mushrooms. 


Onions can also deliver a lovely richness to any dish. They have several amino acids in them that can help bring up the dish's overall umami. 

 

Use Heat To Get the Maillard Reaction

One of the great ways we know about getting umami is with the Maillard reaction. You can see the Maillard reaction at work in the case of garlic and onions. Have you ever wondered why so many recipes tell you to saute your garlic and onions before adding everything else? It’s the Maillard effect!


In the case of garlic and onions, the Maillard reaction takes a typically pungent ingredient and turns it into an ingredient with umami and sweetness. 


But the Maillard reaction works with all sorts of ingredients. Basically, any food that browns – such as meat and even cookies – when you heat it, undergoes this effect. 

 

Incorporate Fermented Ingredients

There are many ingredients that, when they go through a fermentation process, gain an increased amount of glutamic acid. Fermented foods like kombucha and sauerkraut don’t have this reaction. 


However, many Asian ingredients such as soy sauce, miso, and fish sauce in addition to ingredients, like parmesan cheese, can gain a rich umami flavor when fermented. 

 

What Are Amino Acids?

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Any protein in existence is made up of amino acids. There are approximately 20, and glutamate is one of them. 


Interestingly, proteins don’t have much of a taste to themselves. It is only when the proteins are broken down into amino acids can we perceive the tastes that the various amino acids have. 

 

What Is the Maillard Reaction?

The Maillard reaction is a reaction that happens in food as a result of heat. Amino acids and some sugars in the food combine to form new molecules, changing the taste of the food. It changes the effects that the amino acids and sugars have on your taste buds, and it also gives your food a brown color and releases aromas. 


The Maillard reaction, depending on the food it’s acting upon, can release different flavor reactions. It can make things sweeter, increase their umami flavor, or both.


Are Umami and MSG the Same Thing?

Umami and MSG are not the same things. Umami is a taste, and MSG is an ingredient. However, MSG is an excellent representation of what umami may taste.


Again, Dr. Ikeda’s work led to the production of MSG. It’s a crystal that contains high levels of glutamate and can be easily dissolved into different liquids. Monosodium glutamate is a great way to boost your meal’s umami with ease. 


Many people believe that MSG is unhealthy for you and can cause certain reactions, but, in reality, MSG is a perfectly safe ingredient that is used in many foods today. 


The Bottom Line

Umami has such an interesting taste. It has an incredibly unique history, and it is so essential to many of the foods that we eat today. Umami adds such a powerful dimension to food that we simply can’t do without. And now you know what you need to know to pack your food with more of that delicious, savory umami flavor!


So what are you waiting for? If you’re ready to grab some Asian ingredients with rich umami like shiitake mushrooms, kombu, or dashi, head on over to Umamicart. We deliver quality Asian groceries to your doorstep so you can get your grocery shopping done easily.


Sources

Basic Tastes are Anything but Basic | Bridging the Gap | Penn State University  

Finding Umami with a Fermented Mushroom Dish | Institute of Culinary Education

The Maillard reaction | Alimentarium 

What is MSG? Is it bad for you? | Mayo Clinic 

Umami, Japan's “Fifth Flavor” | Japanology  

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