What is Umami and What Does it Taste Like?

12th August, 2021

It was thought that there were only four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Umami, however, is the fifth basic taste that may be difficult to identify in European, Latin American and Middle Eastern cuisines as it is mostly common within the Japanese cuisine. 

Whilst experienced chefs will know and understand the concept of umami, let’s recap its definition and how to achieve it in a variety of fusion dishes; helping you, as chefs, to mix Japanese and European ingredients to create dishes that have a perfectly balanced umami flavour. 

What is Umami? 

Umami refers to the taste of glutamate, an amino acid that is one of the building blocks of protein found in the human body, meat, and vegetables. 

What does umami mean? The word itself, umami, derives from Japan and when translated it means ‘pleasant savoury taste’. 

Meat and fish such as pork, cured meats, steak, and salmon have a base umami taste. This unique flavour can also be found in vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbage, mushrooms, and other everyday foods such as mature cheese and green tea. 

However, the umami taste is more subtle than other tastes as it always comes alongside other flavours and never found by itself naturally like the sweet (found in honey and most fruits like dates and pineapple) or sour (found in citrus fruits, tamarind, cranberries) flavours. 

Often described as the essence of deliciousness, the taste is particularly popular in Japanese cuisine due to use of foods that contain high levels of glutamate which give the dishes this deep, umami taste. Use Mizkan’s specialised vinegar Shiragiku or our Honteri mirin-style seasoning to bring this complex delicious umami flavour into your fusion dishes. 

What does Umami taste like? 

Umami is described as having a savoury, meaty deliciousness that deepens other flavours. In simple words, it tastes like broths and cooked meats. 

The taste derives from the amino acids glutamate and ribonucleotides. The umami sensation comes after the detection of the carboxylate anion of glutamate in the receptor cells present in the human body. 

The umami flavour is not desired on its own as it is not so tasty. However, when paired with other ingredients, it intensifies their flavour.   

 Where is Umami located on the tongue? 

Add graphic image showing where the taste is located – if possible 

Umami is a mild taste that stimulates the throat, the roof, and the back of the mouth. It has a lasting aftertaste associated with salivation and a feeling of furriness on the tongue.   

 Umami foods 

Umami is found in many organic foods with high glutamate levels such as seaweed, soya beans, yeast extract, many types of seafood, garlic, truffle oil and green peas. However, it is also found in fermented and processed foods such as marmite, ketchup, dried, aged, and processed meats, sake cake vinegars and oyster sauce. 

Proteins like pork, fish, beef and shellfish make strong umami foundations – so combining them with other ingredients that have high levels of umami flavour will give you an umami explosion, perfect for those that love this particular taste. 

Check out our recipes page for Japanese and fusion recipes containing the deep umami flavour like our black belly pork made with Shiragiku vinegar or our miso butter karaage chicken made with our Honteri mirin-style seasoning. 

How was umami discovered? 

Umami was first identified as a taste in 1908 in Japan by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist who was eating a kelp broth called kombu dashi in which he noticed that the savoury flavour was different from the four basic tastes, something he had never experienced before. 

After researching, he concluded that umami wasn’t a biproduct of the other four basic tastes, instead it was a distinctive, unique taste. 

However, it was in 1985 when umami was internationally recognised as a scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates. While in 2002, the umami taste receptors were identified on the human tongue, indicating that it is an inherent taste that is enjoyed universally. 

What makes umami unique? 

There is no doubt that umami is a unique and complex flavour. So, let’s find out what makes umami different from other core tastes:

  • Its tongue coating sensation as the flavour spreads 
  • Its long-lasting effect compared to all other basic tastes 
  • Its mouth-watering sensation that provides a mouth fullness, complexity, and balanced taste

 

When thinking of the umami flavour, Japanese cuisine is what comes to mind first. However, there is no doubt that the taste can be enjoyed with other world cuisines such as Pan-Asian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and even Mediterranean dishes. 

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