When you read glowing food reviews of savoury dishes or hear how people describe the taste of their favourite savoury meals they had, they’ll often describe the dish as having an ‘umami’ taste – especially if they were enjoying food from Japanese cuisine.
What is umami and why is it so special?
We know that there are four main flavours: sweet, salty, bitter and sour, with specific areas of our tongue lined with receptors that detect each of these flavours. However, in recent years, scientists have discovered the presence of a fifth flavour: umami. But what does umami taste like?
The word ‘umami’ is taken from the Japanese language and the meaning of umami is ‘pleasant, savoury taste’. It can be described as meaty or savoury, or a combination of both, but you can be sure that an umami-flavoured dish is guaranteed to be delicious.
Another characteristic of umami is the mouth-watering aftertaste it elicits; the flavours cling to your tongue and make you want to go back for seconds, and even thirds! Some umami examples of food include broths, soups or those that have been aged or fermented.
Since its discovery over a hundred years ago, food enthusiasts from across the globe have been eager to find the next restaurant or eatery that serves up umami-rich foods; and if they’re able to recreate these at home!
The Science of Umami Taste
So how was ‘umami’ first discovered? Over a hundred years ago, a Japanese professor, Kikunae Ikeda, was enjoying a bowl of kombu broth when he realised that the taste of the soup had a distinctly savoury yet salty flavour that didn’t quite match any of the four known flavours. After much research, he identified that the core element in the kombu, or kelp, was an amino acid called glutamate. This was what gave kombu its flavour. Professor Ikeda thus termed this the ‘umami’ taste.
On its own, glutamate has a very mild, subtle taste. But when paired with other foods, it draws out the flavours of the foods that it is added to and enhances the overall dish with a complex blend of bold and intense flavours. Glutamate is a naturally occurring compound in various foods, with a higher concentration in some vegetables and meats. These include asparagus, mushrooms, fish and aged cheese.
After Professor Ikeda’s discovery, scientists have identified other compounds over the years that contribute to umami, such as inosinate, present mainly in meat, and guanylate, in plants. All three compounds work in synergy to produce a more intense flavour than would be achieved with their individual compounds. When cooked or fermented together, these compounds release a fragrant aroma, and a strong and meaty flavour.
Umami Taste in Japanese Cuisine
Let’s start with one of the most famous cuisines in the world – Japanese cuisine.
One of the reasons why it’s highly sought after across the world is due to the extensive presence of umami-rich dishes. Many traditional Japanese ingredients are rich in umami, such as kombu, dried bonito flakes, fermented soybean products and miso.
Sometimes, different umami-rich foods are cooked together to offer a greater depth of flavour, or to complement the four main flavours. Some examples include ramen, Japanese katsu curry, miso soup; as well as the ever popular, umami sushi.
Umami Taste in Other Cuisines
Umami might have been officially discovered by Professor Ikeda, but the use of umami-flavoured ingredients stretches back thousands of years ago. In Rome and Greece, it was very common to use fermented fish to add a savoury or salty kick to meals. Since then, the idea of using umami-rich ingredients has spread throughout the world, like umami sauces, for example.
These are used a lot in Asian food, such as Chinese cuisine, which features fermented black bean sauce, oyster sauce and soy sauce, to name a few, which give dishes a lot more flavour. In Hong Kong, XO sauce is a very popular choice to inject intense, savoury flavours, while in Korea, kimchi – the nation’s prized fermented vegetable mixture – and sauces with a fermented soybean base like gochujang and doenjang, are added to enliven meals.
Incorporating Umami Taste in Cooking
The best part is that you do not have to head to a five-star restaurant to try umami-rich dishes; enjoy the taste of umami for yourself at home! After a quick search, you’ll find that the list of umami-rich ingredients is endless.
Consider adding Japanese mushrooms primarily shiitake mushrooms, Parmesan cheese or seaweed for more flavour. You could also try sauces and pastes, such as Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, shrimp paste or even marmite. I’ve added a dollop of marmite into plain Asian porridge for a quick meal and it tasted really good.
Alternatively, you could also add fermented foods like kimchi, miso paste, fermented soybean or black bean pastes to ramp up the savouriness of your dishes. As you experiment, consider mixing salty and sweet flavours or sweet and slightly acidic flavours to create complex tastes that suit your palate.
I find the easiest way to inject flavour into any dish is meat stock cubes. I usually break up a chicken stock cube and add about half to a pan of stir-fried vegetables. Remember that a little bit goes a long way, especially with sauces, pastes or stocks that have very concentrated flavours. Adding too much might overpower a dish, which could make it overly salty, and is not what you’d want to go for. The key is to balance out all flavours for a mouth-watering meal.
The impact of Professor Ikaeda’s discovery certainly resulted in a shift in flavour profiles in the culinary world and opened the door to a world of very tasty dishes!
While umami is the foundation of Japanese cuisine, what’s great about it is that these versatile ingredients that make Japanese dishes so flavourful can be incorporated into dishes across various cuisines.
Try incorporating some of these into your cooking and enjoy foods rich in umami flavour right in the comfort of your own home!