Umami, a savoury taste, is one of the 5 basic tastes (together with sweet, sour, bitter and salty). It is a ‘loan-word’ from Japanese and can be translated as “pleasant savoury taste”.
This word was chosen by Professor Kikunae Ikeda from “UMAI” =delicious and “MI” = taste. People taste Umami through receptors for ‘glutamate’, commonly found in its salt form, as the food additive MSG. For that reason, scientists consider Umami to be distinct from saltiness. Scientists have debated whether Umami was a basic taste, since Kikunae Ikeda first proposed its existence in 1908. In 1985, the term Umami was recognised as the scientific term to describe the taste of ‘glutamates’ and ‘nucleotides’ at the First Umami International Symposium in Hawaii.
It can be described as a pleasant “brothy” or “meaty” taste with a long-lasting, mouth-watering and coating sensation over the tongue. The sensation of Umami is due to the “Carboxylate Anion” of glutamate in specialized receptor cells present on the human and animal tongues. Its effect is to balance taste and round out the overall flavour of a dish. Umami enhances the palatability of a wide variety of foods.
Glutamate has a long history in cooking ——— fermented fish sauces (garum), which are rich in glutamate, were used widely in ancient Rome, fermented barley sauces (murri), rich in glutamate, were used in medieval Byzantine and Arab cuisine and fermented fish sauces and soy sauces have histories going back to the 3rd century in China. In the late 1800s, Chef Auguste Escoffier, who opened restaurants in Paris and London, created meals that combined Umami with salty, sour, sweet and bitter tastes. However, he did not know the chemical source of this unique quality.
Umami was first scientifically identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a Professor of the Tokyo Imperial University. He found that glutamate was responsible for the palatability of the broth from “Kombu Seaweed”. He noticed that the taste of Kombu Dashi was distinct from sweet, sour, bitter and salty and he named it Umami.
Professor Shintaro Kodama, a disciple of Ikeda, discovered in 1913 that “dried bonito flakes” contained another Umami substance. When foods, rich in glutamate, are combined with ingredients that have nucleotides, the result taste intensity is higher than the individual ingredients.
This synergy of Umami explains various classical “food pairings” starting with why the Japanese make Dashi with kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes, and, continuing with various dishes : the Chinese add Chinese leek and Chinese cabbage to chicken soup, as in the similar Scottish dish of cock-a-leekie soup and Italian-Americans combine Parmesan cheese on tomato sauce with mushrooms.
Properties of Umami taste : It has a mild but lasting aftertaste that is difficult to describe. It induces salivation and a sensation of “furriness” on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth. By itself, Umami is not palatable, but it makes a great variety of foods pleasant especially in the presence of a matching aroma. But, like other tastes, with the exception of sucrose, Umami is pleasant within a relatively narrow concentration range. The optimum Umami taste depends also on the amount of salt and, at the same time, low-salt foods can maintain a satisfactory taste with the appropriate amount of Umami.
Some population groups, such as the elderly, may benefit from Umami taste, because their taste and smell sensitivity is impaired by age and medicine. The loss of taste and smell can contribute to poor nutrition, increasing their risk of disease.
Foods rich in Umami : Many foods that may be consumed daily are rich in Umami. Naturally occurring glutamate can be found in meats and guanylate from vegetables. Thus, Umami taste is common to foods that contain high levels of L-glutamate, most notably in fish, shellfish, cured meats, mushrooms, vegetables (tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, celery) or green tea and fermented and aged products (cheese, shrimp pastes, soy sauce). Many humans’ first encounter with Umami is “breast milk”. It contains roughly the same amount of Umami as ‘broths’.
Umami has become popular with food manufacturers such as Nestle, the Campbell Soup Company and Frito-Lay. Farmers promote their produce as a way to boost Umami taste and Chefs create “Umami Bombs”, which are dishes made of several Umami ingredients.