About 3,000 years ago, Greek philosophers came up with the concept of our four elemental tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Their theory remained intact right up until the early 20th century, when a scientist in Japan discovered a fifth taste: umami. But unlike the traditional four tastes, umami is a bit more complicated.
“Simply, umami is the deliciousness or savouriness of food,” says Trevor Blyth, a former Roux Scholar and chef-proprietor of the White Fox in Tokyo. “Scientifically, it is the taste imparted from all foods that contain glutamate, guanylate and inosinate. And metaphorically, umami can be viewed as the dark matter of flavour; the difficult-to-describe element that holds all other tastes together.”
In Japan, people have for years used dashi, an umami-rich stock made from kombu (kelp), to elicit the best flavour from food. The concept of umami has been recognised in the East for a long time, but only over the past decade or so has umami started to play an increasingly important role in the West, too. Top chefs such as David Chang and Heston Blumenthal have been working with umami for years to balance and enhance their dishes.
“It’s something very close to my heart,” Blumenthal has said, using his research into umami not only at his three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, but also to design in-flight menus for British Airways and develop umami-rich dishes for hospital patients to encourage the elderly to eat more.
But even in the mainstream, umami is starting to make waves as more and more restaurants are incorporating it into their menus. In California, burger chain Umami has used a secret sauce to maximise the umami taste experience and make punters crave their $12 burgers, while closer to home, Hawksmoor has designed its entire menu around umami, with its Longhorn kimchi burger providing the ultimate umami hit. “Umami is important because it plays a strong supporting role which helps to unify flavours,” says executive chef Richard Turner.
Yet umami remains a taste that is difficult to explain, although we all know it when we taste it. “Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste that is difficult to describe,” says Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, chef-proprietor of Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants.
“It induces salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, and it stimulates the throat and the roof and the back of the mouth. Umami is palatable and has a long-lasting taste.”
Ultimately, umami is what makes our favourite savoury dishes taste so delicious. It’s rich, earthy, meaty and savoury. It’s why the Japanese cook with dashi, why the French use stocks and truffles, why Italians love Parmesan and tomatoes, and why we Brits like to add a splash of Worcestershire sauce to our food. It may not be sweet, salty, sour or bitter, but it’s the taste that makes our mouths water.
THE HISTORY OF UMAMI
Although it has become a 21st-century phenomenon, the idea of umami has been around for way longer than one might imagine – we just didn’t know it. “The concept [of umami] may be rather new, but the taste has been with us for centuries in the stocks and sauces of Europe, the pizza of Italy, the broth of Japan, and the oyster sauce of China,” writes Dr Kumiko Ninomiya, director of the Umami Information Center, in her paper Umami: A Universal Taste.
As far back as 3,000 years ago, Greeks and Romans used a condiment called garum – a fermented fish sauce – unwittingly boosting the umami in their foods. In 1825, in his famous treatise The Physiology of Taste, French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin established the word “osmasome” for rich, meaty tastes, which has since been considered a forerunner of umami. And in the late 1800s, fellow Frenchman Auguste Escoffier incorporated veal stock into his cooking to intensify the flavour of certain sauces as well as their mouth-feel and texture.
But it wasn’t until 1908 that a scientific explanation of umami was established when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda at the University of Tokyo tried to extract the distinctive taste of dashi. He discovered it was
glutamate – a type of amino acid – and coined the term umami, which was derived from the Japanese word umai, meaning savoury or delicious. Following his discovery, Ikeda went on to invent monosodium glutamate or MSG – perhaps the most infamous three-letter word in the history of food (see below).
However, it took the world of science nearly 80 years to acknowledge Ikeda’s finding and only in 1985, at the Umami International Symposium held in Hawaii, was umami finally recognised as a distinct taste separate from that of sweet, salty, sour or bitter.
In 2000, scientists at the University of Miami discovered the existence of a specific taste receptor responsible for umami, while in 2009 a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that certain genes play a role in how sensitive we are to it.
THE SCIENCE OF UMAMI
Glutamate is one of 20 non-essential amino acids, a structural element of protein, which occurs naturally in many foods, but particularly in asparagus, seaweed and tomatoes.
Following Ikeda’s discovery, further research revealed that in addition to glutamate, umami is also imparted by DNA building blocks called ribonucleotides, which also occur naturally in many foods, particularly in meat and fish (inosinate) and in mushrooms (guanylate).
Although the ribonucleotides give off some umami on their own, more importantly, they magnify the umami taste of foods rich in glutamate. What this means is that the key to umami is the combination of ingredients high in glutamate with ingredients that have ribonucleotides, as the resulting umami taste is way more intense than that of the ingredients on their own.
“Umami is part of the taste of food and it has a synergistic effect on other umami-rich foods,” explains Blyth. “Combine asparagus (glutamate) with bacon (inosinate) and mushrooms (guanylate) and the umami taste in all of the ingredients will be intensified.”
HOW TO UNLEASH UMAMI
While glutamate is found in many natural foods, certain cooking methods further enhance umami as they help to increase the level of amino acids and this can be achieved in a number of different ways. Cooking boosts umami in savoury foods such as meat, which isn’t umami when it’s raw as it is the cooking process that releases the glutamate. Similarly, curing meat or fish results in the breakdown of amino acids, which not only helps to preserve the meat, but also increases umami.
Fermentation frees the umami in things like soy sauce or kimchi, while ageing cheeses or drying mushrooms has a similar effect. Combining foods rich in glutamate and ribonucleotides is the key to unleashing umami, which is why age-old combinations such as Parmesan and tomatoes in pizza or kombu and katsuobushi in dashi are so popular. The umami taste can also be enhanced by condiments such as fish sauce or soya sauce to season a dish before serving or at the table.
However, just like with the other four tastes, balance is key, as too much umami can be overpowering. “Umami should be used with caution – it’s easy to overdo and bludgeon the tastebuds, which is okay for a few bites, but fatiguing over several courses,” says Turner.
This article was first published by Caterer and Hotelkeeper. Please visit catererandhotelkeeper.co.uk to read the full version.