What is Umami? Unraveling The Secrets of The Fifth Taste 2023

Welcome, flavor lovers; let’s go on a gastronomic journey. You might know the four basic food taste profiles: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. But did you know there’s a fifth flavor that adds depth and savoriness to your dishes? This fifth basic taste palette is called “umami.” 

Even though common in our favorite foods, the term is often misunderstood. Umami has roots in Japanese cooking, culture, and cuisine and has gradually crossed the global culinary scene, turning ordinary meals into unique gastronomic experiences.

In this post, we will share the secrets of umami. We will cover its history, science, and impact on the food we eat and its influence on how we perceive flavors. You’re in the right place if you’re eager to learn a new culinary trick or just curious!

Prepare to learn what umami is – the mysterious fifth taste!

Umami
Courtesy Teafolly

Brief History of Umami

The journey of umami started over a century ago in Japan. The term ‘umami’ was coined by Japanese Scientist and Professor Kikunae Ikeda from the Tokyo Imperial University in 1908. Ikeda was struck by its distinctive taste while enjoying a kombu dashi or seaweed soup bowl. This taste was unlike the four primary flavors he was familiar with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. He was intrigued by this savory, complex taste and decided to delve into its source.

After extensive research, Ikeda identified glutamate, a type of amino acid (a building block for protein), as the compound responsible for this unique taste. The word “umami” itself comes from Japanese, where “umai” means delicious, and “mi” means taste. Umami is often described as pleasant, savory, or ‘meaty’ and is found in various foods such as tomatoes, aged cheeses, and meats.

Ikeda’s discovery marked a significant milestone in the field of food science. It is groundbreaking because it added a fifth taste to the previously accepted four primary flavors. 

What Does Umami Taste Like

Umami is a savory, brothy, or ‘meaty’ sensation that can be difficult to tell yet instantly recognizable once experienced. Unlike the other basic tastes, umami brings a unique depth and richness to foods, leaving a lasting, coating sensation on the tongue. The taste keeps you craving more and makes your food deeply satisfying and flavorful. 

Foods rich in umami can often taste more ‘complete’ and enjoyable, making umami a crucial tool for creating delicious  and balanced dishes.

The Science of Umami

Umami is detected by the taste receptors on our tongue, which respond to specific compounds in our food. The primary compounds that trigger the umami taste are glutamates, naturally occurring amino acids in many foods. Alongside these are two other nucleotides, inosinates and guanylates, that intensify the umami flavor.

When these compounds hit our taste receptors, they signal to our brain, translating into the savory, deep flavor we perceive as umami. It enhances and complements the other flavors in food, enriching our overall culinary experience.

Where Can I Find Umami Foods?

Umami is found naturally in many ingredients, such as soy sauce, miso paste, Parmesan cheese, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, seaweed (kelp and kombu), anchovies, cured meats, and fermented products like soybean paste (for example, Gojuchang) and fish sauce. 

Even though “umami” is associated with Japanese cuisine, other cuisines worldwide have this flavor profile. Many you have tasted before but did not know. For example, green tea is a popular umami flavor.

In traditional Japanese cuisine, umami-rich foods include soy sauce, miso, and dashi, a broth made from kombu seaweed (kelp) and bonito flakes. 

Western cuisines also employ umami-rich ingredients such as ripe tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and mushrooms. Certain meats like beef, chicken, and seafood, including anchovies and shellfish, are also loaded with umami. Even fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, and capers can have a strong umami flavor. The magic of umami is its versatility – it can enhance the flavor of almost any dish it graces. 

One of my absolute favorite pizzas is a margarita with anchovies on top. The gorgeous smoothness of the tomato sauces with the saltiness from the anchovies, I can eat a whole one to myself.

While you may be familiar with traditional umami sources like soy sauce and mushrooms, let us introduce you to the enigmatic allure of black sesame. This tiny, unassuming seed possesses a power that can transform your dishes into culinary masterpieces. Get ready to unlock the secrets of black sesame umami and embark on a taste adventure like no other!

Black sesame is not only a taste sensation but also a visual feast. Sprinkle these ebony gems onto your dishes, and watch them come alive with an elegant touch of intrigue. From vibrant salads to hearty stir-fries, black sesame adds a captivating visual element that elevates your culinary creations.

Common Myths About Umami

Several myths surround umami, the most common being its association with unhealthy MSG or monosodium glutamate derived from the sodium salt of glutamic acid. However, the umami taste originates from naturally occurring glutamates in many wholesome foods. 

While MSG, a synthetic form of glutamate, got a bad rap in the past (it was historically thought to cause headaches, stomach aches, and general discomfort), the US Food and Drug Administration declares MSG safe to eat.

It’s crucial to differentiate between MSG and the natural umami flavor. Embracing umami doesn’t mean resorting to artificial additives; it’s about understanding and utilizing various foods rich in natural flavors to enhance your culinary journey.

How To Use Umami in Your Cooking

Cooking with umami in mind can significantly improve the flavor of your dishes. Techniques such as browning meat, caramelizing onions, or roasting vegetables can enhance their umami properties. 

Utilizing umami-rich ingredients like soy sauce, tomato paste, or mushrooms can add depth of flavor to your dishes to make Mum proud. Even in vegetarian or vegan cooking, umami can be maximized through ingredients like nutritional yeast, seaweed, and fermented foods. 

Remember, umami is a balancing flavor, so experiment with how it interacts with other food tastes to create a balanced and satisfying meal.

Black Sesame Cheesecake

Indulge your senses in a dessert that combines the captivating allure of black sesame with enchanting umami flavors. 

Prepare to embark on a culinary adventure as we present this irresistible black sesame cheesecake recipe. This delightful creation combines the nutty, earthy notes of black sesame with the savory depth of umami, resulting in a luxurious and tempting dessert. 

Be amazed as each creamy, velvety bite takes you on a journey of taste and texture, leaving you craving more. Let’s dive into umami and black sesame, where flavors intertwine to create a dessert experience.

Jalapeno Popper Mummies

Jalapeno Popper Mummies

Yield: 20 Jalapeno Popper Mummies
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes

A spooktacular take on jalapeno poppers, with a spicy-sweet dipping sauce.

Ingredients

For the Mummies

For the Ghastly Dipping Sauce

  • 2 cups Ranch dressing
  • 1/2 cup salsa verde
  • 1 bunch fresh Cilantro
  • 1/2 lime, squeezed

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. This will keep our mummies from sticking to their afterlife bed.
  2. Cut each jalapeño in half lengthwise, and don't forget to wear some kitchen gloves unless you want to experience the fiery wrath of jalapeño fingers later. Scoop out the seeds and membranes to tame the heat a bit.
  3. Combine cream cheese with Guac and Roll Seasoning.
  4. Coat the mozzarella sticks with cream cheese. Now, they're ready to be our little mummy souls.
  5. Place each cream cheese-covered mozzarella stick inside a jalapeño half, like a snug little mummy coffin.
  6. Cut your crescent quarters in strips and wrap them around each jalapeño, crisscrossing to create that mummy look. Leave a little space at the top for the eyes.
  7. Sprinkle more Guac and Roll over your mummified peppers, making them look extra crispy and delightful.
  8. Place your mummies on the prepared baking sheet and slide them into the preheated oven. Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until the crescent dough is slightly brown and the jalapeños are tender.
  9. To make the dipping sauce, combine all ingredients in a food processor, adding more of each ingredient if needed as you taste.

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Nutrition Information:
Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 125Total Fat: 8gSaturated Fat: 4gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 3gCholesterol: 24mgSodium: 192mgCarbohydrates: 10gFiber: 1gSugar: 4gProtein: 5g

The provided nutrition calculated may not always be accurate.

Did you make this recipe?

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Enjoy the rich, nutty flavors of the black sesame combined with the creamy, velvety texture of the cheesecake. It’s a unique dessert that will leave everyone craving more!

Enjoy Some Umami

Umami, the so-called fifth taste, is a culinary game-changer. From its early discovery in Japan to its global recognition today, umami has proven indispensable in enhancing and balancing our food’s flavors. Understanding and incorporating umami into our dishes can elevate our cooking and dining experiences. 

So, the next time you find your dish lacking a particular ‘oomph,’ remember umami – your secret weapon to create mouthwatering, flavorful dishes that will leave everyone asking for more.

This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks.

Author

  • Latif Jamani

    Latif Jamani is an entrepreneur based in Calgary, Alberta, and has traveled to over 35 countries. Quite simply, Latif loves food, traveling, and seeking out new experiences. A secret that no one knows is that Latif used to skip class at university to stay home and watch the “food network.” This exposed Latif to many different techniques and types of food. His favorite hosts are Jamie Oliver, Giada, Barefoot Contessa, Gordon Ramsey, just to name a few. Latif loves to cook and break bread with family and friends in his spare time. Latif has an MBA from INSEAD and is exploring the vast and tasty world of vegetarian cuisines.

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