Umami was added as the fifth basic taste in the 20th century. It encompasses the “savoury” category of food, providing us with a word to describe just what it is in food like bacon that we love so much.
Umami was discovered in the 1908 by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, who set out to identify the specific flavour in kombu seaweed used in Japanese cuisine. He’s observed that the taste of kombu dashi was distinct from sweet, sour, bitter and salty, and named it Umami. The term, when translated, means “pleasant savoury taste”. It comes from the Japanese words umai “delicious” and mi “taste”.
Umami’s big break through came to the western world in 1985, when scientists failed to replicate the flavour of MSG. The science of taste dictates that all flavours can be recreated through specific combinations of the basic tastes, much like all colours can be recreated through the use of three primary colours. Scientists’ inability to recreate the flavour of MSG meant that there was a missing “ingredient”, which opened the door of Ikeda’s research to be accepted, and the fifth taste was inaugurated.
As Parise mentions, umami makes dishes taste more savoury and full. It’s a long-lasting, coating sensation over the tongue. Umami can be difficult to identify because it plays a background role to most flavours and is a subtle taste. It blends with other tastes to expand and round out the flavours, sort of acting as the backbone and structure of a dish.
If you’re interested in learning how to identify and taste umami, visit the Umami Information Center website and try their tasting course.
Toss out that tongue map from grade school science. Taste isn’t just about the location of specific receptors on your tongue; in fact, it’s been shown that every taste bud can register every basic taste to some degree, though some are more receptive to specific tastes.
Taste vs Flavour
Before we continue with the science-y discussion, let’s clarify one thing: taste and flavour are not the same thing. Taste is a chemical sensation perceived by specialized receptor cells found in your taste buds. Flavour is the result of several stimuli – taste, smell, touch, heat – fusing into one identifiable trait.
Our sense of taste is one of the most difficult senses to test. That’s because it is a subjective sensation. What tastes disgusting to one person may taste delicious to another. Add to that the fact that there are supertasters – people with highly sensitive taste receptors that can find complex flavours in the blandest dish – and you’ve got a sensory category that is constantly in flux.
Umami on the Tongue
Umami is a subtle taste. Many people won’t recognize it when it’s there, but will notice when it’s missing from a dish. Most taste buds on the tongue and other regions of the mouth can detect umami, regardless of location.
It is, in essence, the effect of glutamate and nucleotides on our palate. These react on a basic level in our mouth to induce salivation and create a sensation of “furriness” on the tongue. It also stimulates the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth. The effect is mild but long-lasting and very difficult to describe, which is why there are so many different definitions of umami. In fact, the umami sensation will be different depending on which amino acid is present – the Umami Information Center has a handy guide for the composition of umami.
In order for umami to be palatable, it needs to be combined with the other basic tastes; the best combination of umami is with salt – low-salt dishes taste better with umami and high-umami dishes taste better with salt.
Perhaps one of the reasons why it took so long for a fifth taste to be recognized world wide is because umami isn’t prevalent in western food. Sweet, sour, bitter, salty – these are all things we can add to our food with spices and additives, like sugar. Umami however is found in the composition of the ingredients rather than spices added to a dish. While this list doesn't cover every food that contains umami, it's a great place to start with your next umami-infused menu.
107mg glutamate/100g meat
Glutamate levels are highest in matured beef and beef jerky.
33mg glutamate/100g meat
Maybe not the highest glutamate of the bunch, there’s still enough umami in these low-calorie veggies to add depth to your salad.
40mg glutamate/100g meat
There’s a reason why eating chicken soup is like wrapping yourself in a warm hug.
208mg glutamate/100g meat
This burrowing mullusk is the perfect umami candidate for chowder.
668mg glutamate/100g meat
Looking for healthy alternatives to coffee that still taste great? Look no further.
150mg glutamate/100g meat
Another meat replacement, mushrooms are high in protein, savoury and oh-so-delicious.
1200mg glutamate/100g meat
This cheese is off the charts when it comes to umami taste. Add it to everything. With bacon.
337mg glutamate/100g meat
Love bacon? Thank the glutamate levels. Cured ham is also a huge glutamate carrier.
102mg glutamate/100g meat
This starchy, tuberous crop is a staple in many homes, providing a good starter to the umami taste for anyone looking to explore.
43mg glutamate/100g meat
The umami in this seafood crustacean is subtle, but effective.
66mg glutamate/100g meat
A common ingredient in both Japanese and Chinese food, fermented soy beans only recently made their way across the seas and into western culture.
246mg glutamate/100g meat
Whether it’s ketchup on your fries or chopped tomatoes in a salad, tomatoes are a great stand in for the meat on a vegetarian menu.
188mg glutamate/100g meat
Seafood lovers who want to explore umami should reach for a tuna roll at the sushi bar. It’s savoury.
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