I’m sure you’ve heard of the fifth type of texture, umami. Yet, even if you’re familiar with this word, how familiar are you with what the actual taste is? While we’ve got our sweet, savory, salty and bitter flavors, umami (pronounced “oo-mommy”) encompasses another spectrum of tastes that are absolutely delicious. Umami taste is one of richness, fullness and complexity.
Coined from Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, umami derives from the meaning of savoury. The direct translation of “umami” means “yummy” or “meaty.” A long time ago, Ikeda was enjoying a bowl of dashi, a classic Japanese seaweed soup. He couldn’t put his finger on the distinct tastes of the soup, but recognized the flavors were beyond the four existing taste categories–bitter, salty, savory or sweet. Ikeda went straight to his lab and found that the secret ingredient was glutamic acid. While glutamate’s found in most living things, the molecules break apart when organic matter breaks down–i.e. when you cook meat, the aging of parmesan cheese by fermentation or when a tomato ripens under the sun. However, when glutamate, an amino acid, converts to L-glutamate, that’s when “yummy” comes in!
Umami is usually present with salt to add more complexity and depth to food. Traditional sources of umami include soy sauce, miso paste and bonito flakes in Eastern cuisine. Head over to Western cuisine and examples of umami can be seen in mushrooms, cured ham, tomatoes, ketchup and cheese.
So, you don’t necessarily have to eat Asian food to experience the wonders of umami, yet, recognizing that there’s more to eat and taste than bitter, salty, sweet or savory gives us all additional options!