What Is Umami?

Along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, umami is one of the five primary flavors that humans can detect via receptor cells on their tongue. The term umami was coined in 1908 by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University, who was investigating the active ingredients in kelp that lead to the savory taste of dashi broth, a staple of Japanese cuisine. This lead him to isolating monosodium glutamate (MSG) as the chemical responsible for that taste. The Ajinmoto company was created to market MSG. Other chemicals that produce and enhance this taste were found in various foods that we tend to identify as meaty or savory. It was not until very recently, however, that umami was determined to be one of the basic tastes that we could perceive via our tongues.

Isn't MSG bad for you?

No. Not really.

What foods contain umami?

The flavor of umami is found in a huge variety of foods. This isn't surprising if you consider how many foods taste sour or sweet. Still, some foods are known for their high umami content:

  • Meat. Red meats tend to be higher than others. Aging, curing, and drying meats generally intensifies the umami taste.
  • Fish. Small fish, such as anchovies and sardines are particularly high in umami, as are red-fleshed fish such as tuna. Again, processing seems to intensify the flavor. Dried and fermented fish products have high levels of umami.
  • Other Seafood Scallops, Clam, Shrimp, Squid and other seafood tend to be high in umami. Oyster sauce is a common way of harnessing this flavor.
  • Seaweed and Kelp. From dashi broth to the nori that your sushi comes with, sea vegetables are rich in umami taste.
  • Mushrooms and truffles
  • Fruits/Vegetables: Potatoes, Carrots, Soybeans, Sweet Potatoes, Asparagus, Tomatoes.
  • Dairy: Parmesan Cheese, aged cheeses, blue cheeses.
  • Green tea

Many condiments are carriers of umami: ketchup, soy sauce, fish sauce, and worcestershire Sauce are all used to transport this flavor to other dishes. Marmite and vegemite are also both extremely rich in umami flavor.

How to use umami

There are three types of chemicals glutamates (found mostly in vegetables and dairy products) , inosinates (which tend to be in meats), and guanylates (mushrooms) which carry the umami taste. Umami flavor is strengthened (and, generally, considered best) when the these chemicals work together. Umami can also be intensified by salty or sweet flavors. Glutamates can be accentuated by acidic/sour flavors. The traditional dashi which lead to the discovery of umami gains its flavor from a combination of kelp (glutamates) and bonito flakes (inosinates). Some foods, such as beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, and nori contain both glutamates and inosinates. Truffles and green tea contain all three.

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