Almost everyone loves the deep savory flavor in soups and stews, the taste of aged parmesan, and the way slow-cured ham lingers on the palate. What ties all these foods together is they are rich in umami. The story of where umami comes from, what it tastes like, and how it was discovered is a journey wrapped up in culture and chemistry.
The story starts with a chemist at Tokyo Imperial University named Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who thought there was a quality in Dashi, a clear stock essential to Japanese cooking, that was distinct from the other four basic flavors (sweet, salty, bitter, sour). He thought it should be considered a basic flavor because it couldn’t be produced by any combination of the other four. As Ikeda said, “it is usually so faint and overshadowed by other stronger tastes that it is often difficult to recognize it unless attention is specifically directed towards it.”
To understand where this flavor came from Dr. Ikeda started exploring the primary ingredient in Dashi, a type of kelp called konbu. To figure out what made Dashi so delicious he worked for months conducting a chemical analysis that involved boiling konbu down to a tarry like substance and using an evaporation technique to isolate specific compounds.
Ikeda knew he had found the right thing when he tried some small crystals and they tasted like a sour Dashi. What Ikeda had found was glutamate, which is an amino acid that gives Dashi its rich umami flavor. What’s interesting when you taste glutamate by itself is how long the taste lingers on the palate.
The name umami, which is often translated as ‘pleasant savory taste,’ comes from the Japanese words umai, which is used to say something is pleasant or delicious and the word mi, which means ‘essence,’ ‘essential nature,’ or ‘taste.’
According to Mouritsen and Styrbaek, in their book Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste, Ikeda never intended for umami to be the permanent name for his discovery, but instead suggested it as a temporary name until something better could be found. Something both ironic and justified, considering how long it took the rest of the scientific community to acknowledge umami as a basic flavor and because when they finally did, they named umami in Ikeda’s honor.
Why Did It Take So Long to Find Umami?
The real question, of course, is why did it take so long to find umami; it wasn’t as if people developed the ability to taste umami after Ikeda’s experiments or when scientists finally discovered umami receptors on our tongues ninety years later.
Ever since Democritus, an ancient Greek philosopher, there have been four accepted flavors sweet, sour, bitter, and salty in western cuisine. As the science of taste has evolved scientists have been able to identify taste receptors on our tongues associated with each of the basic flavors.
A part of the reason it took so long for scientists to recognize umami as a basic flavor is because the first taste receptors specific to umami weren’t discovered until 2000. Since then several more receptors have been discovered that react to different types of amino acids that produce different degrees of umami.
Another reason why it has taken longer for umami to be recognized in western cuisine is even though the flavor has been sought after for thousands of years, with a history stretching from the Roman’s love of a fermented fish sauce called garum all the way to Americans’ predilection for ketchup, there still isn’t a single ingredient or dish that embodies umami in western cuisine in the same way Dashi does in Japanese cuisine.
Think about it, when someone wants to know what salty tastes like they can have a spoonful of salt, sweet try some sugar, sour here’s a lemon, bitter drink a really hoppy beer. Ask someone for a bite of umami and you’re likely to get a blank stare. One of the things holding umami back is that they way people usually describe a flavor is by using an analogy or by using the flavor’s name; for example, when someone describes something sweet they say it tastes sugary, when something is really sour people say it’s like sucking on a lemon.
Mouritsen and Styrbaek think a part of the reason for umami’s recognition in Japanese cuisine is that the spread of Zen Buddhism in the 1300s helped deeply ingrain the search for umami through the monks’ practice of a strict form of vegetarianism that forbid all animal products. This increased the importance of konbu, the base for Shojin Dashi, which has been described as the ultimate vegetarian soup stock and a true umami bomb.
The other piece of the umami puzzle is that while there are lots of ingredients that have umami in them: asparagus, tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, parmesan cheese, pork, etc. The best way to bring umami flavors out is to combine ingredients with different chemical compositions, often referred to as umami’s 1+1=8 synergistic effect and to use cooking methods such as drying, curing, or fermenting that can bring out more of an ingredient’s umami flavor. Something we’ll get into more in the next couple of articles in this series.
Umami and MSG
One last thing worth noting is the connection between umami and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). MSG, which maybe the most taboo ingredient on the planet, was created by Dr. Ikeda as a way to add umami to food.
MSG is glutamic acid derived by fermenting corn and is essentially what Ikeda found in the lab. The company Ikeda started to manufacture MSG, Anjinomoto, is still the largest producer in the world.
Without getting into the whole long tortured history of MSG and the misunderstandings around what it is and whether or not it’s safe, which according to the FDA it is, the story of MSG and America is better served a la carte.
This article is a part of Umami’s Understanding Umami Series. Future articles will include:
- Understanding Umami in Three Bites
- How to Get More Umami in Your Food