Umami (pronounced oo·maa·mee): a word that has become part of the culinary vernacular to describe a taste so savory and flavorful, that it creates a delightfully distinct, highly pleasurable sensation on the palate. Having been discovered by a Japanese chemistry professor in the early 20th century, it has become especially closely intertwined with the enjoyment of Japan’s much-loved cuisine.
Famed for its umami flavors, as well as its use of fresh and nutritious ingredients and its unique presentations, Japanese food is beloved across the globe, consistently ranking in the Top 5 of the world’s most popular cuisines. In a recent study conducted by travel guide and luggage storage firm, Radical Storage, Japanese food emerged as the third most influential, with a popularity score of over 2.5 million restaurants across the 50 most visited cities in the world.
But what is umami all about? While it’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what umami tastes like, we can at least learn more about its origins.
A bowl of dashi, a mouthful of umami
The discovery of umami dates to 1907 (although some accounts have it at 1908), and is credited to Kikunae Ikeda, who was a professor at the Department of Chemistry of Tokyo Imperial University, which is now the University of Tokyo. Prof. Ikeda discovered the taste component in kelp broth (kombu dashi), which he had enjoyed from his boyhood years. He simmered 38 kg of dried kelp, extracted the liquid, broke it down into its chemical components, and determined that it was the glutamic acid in the broth that was responsible for its flavor. Later on, a team of Japanese scientists continued the umami undertaking started by Prof. Ikeda and discovered two additional components of the taste sensation, inosinate and guanylate, in other ingredient items of Japan’s popular dishes.
Glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate form the essence of the umami flavor profile, and are responsible for producing what has become fifth basic taste, alongside sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Foods that typically possess this umami taste include fish, seaweed, poultry and meats, cheese, tomatoes, broccoli, beets, and dried mushrooms (specifically, shiitake, porcini, and morels).
Palate-pleasing flavor that lingers
More than a mouthful, umami is all about a mouth-feel. To pinpoint what umami tastes like is difficult, to say the least. It is delicate, yet daring; subtle, yet sensational; light, yet lingering. While an exact definition is elusive, chefs and culinary experts have pegged three major aspects of the umami taste: it spreads across the tongue (it is definitely a plate pleaser); it is persistent (leaves a memorable aftertaste); and, it triggers salivation (interestingly enough, for an even longer period than sour foods).
Pushing the flavor profile even further, the umami taste is heightened when all three components— glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate—are present in a dish, through its various ingredients. This is called “umami synergy” and is something that chefs in the know aspire for in their creations. Because umami (more so, umami synergy) is so desirable, in fact, these components are even available as artificially derived additives and flavor enhancers.
Of course, while shortcuts are often convenient, nothing beats the real deal. Any chef worth their umami will attest to that.