Umami: The Fifth Sense of Taste

Umami, known as the fifth flavour, is now taking its rightful place alongside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter in food glossaries.



The tomatoes on this pizza offer the umami flavour, which helps this pizza taste very satisfying.

Obesity is a Western scourge. Recent newspaper reports on the increase in obesity, point to the time bomb awaiting healthcare systems. Operations are already being cancelled because gurneys cannot support the weight of patients.

My theory is that people eat too much, not because they are greedy but because the food is not satisfying. We can all taste easily whether a food is sweet or sour, salty or bitter but the really satisfying taste comes from umami foods. There is no English word for umami, a special taste imparted naturally to meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products by glutamates.

Almost 100 years ago, Professor Kikunae Ikeda recognised a common factor in the flavours of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat. This flavour was quite distinctive and could not be classified under any of the well-defined taste qualities, sweet, sour, salty or bitter. He started working on stock made with Japanese seaweed (kombu) and gave the name umami to the special taste contributed by the glutamate in dried kombu. He found that monosodium glutamate (MSG) had the strongest taste of this new umami.

At the same time, in the West, Maggi, a Nestlé brand, started producing stock cubes to help poorer families get some meat-flavoured protein in their diet. Maggi did not realise that the meaty flavour was produced by glutamate formed in the dried vegetable protein. So the main taste element in both bouillon and dashi (Japanese kombu and bonito stock) is umami.

Shtake mushrooms

Shitake mushrooms are an excelent way to introduce the umami flavour to recipes.

Food writer Elizabeth Rozin, in one of the early books on umami, says, “Central to culinary endeavour in humans everywhere is the production and experience of flavour.” In most cultures, the flavour inherent in the foodstuffs and the flavour produced by various processing methods are essential parts of the flavour experience but they are by no means the whole story. People everywhere further enhance the flavours of what they eat by adding condiments – salt, pepper, chopped herbs, garlic.

Rozin has divided the flavour principles into three categories:

1. Fats or oils: ghees and toasted sesame oil or lard impart different flavours to meat. In Western cuisines, meat is a source of glutamic acid – especially beef and pork. The flesh, fat and bones of beef cooked with vegetables forms the basis of many famous stocks. Bovril, which is a glutamate enhanced beef concentrate, is widely used in Australian, British and Canadian cooking. Pork is also a great source of glutamic acid, and the various methods for curing and drying it liberate more glutamic acid. Thus, chorizo, kielbasa, pepperoni, Frankfurters and other pork sausages, hams and salami impart to popular staple foods (beans, lentils, rice, potatoes, pasta) the unique umami taste.

2. Liquids, semi liquids and pastes used in soups and stews: These can be animal in origin, and fresh. e.g. meat or fish stocks/milk/cream or fermented. They can also be vegetable in origin. e.g. fresh tomatoes, coconut milk, vegetable juices or fermented vegetable products including wine, beer, vinegar, soy sauce and bean pastes. Milk also contains a satisfactory amount of glutamic acid and all the more so if it has been turned into cheese, especially some of those hard cheeses like Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, French or Swiss Gruyere . Emmenthal and, of course, cheddar. Roquefort, Stilton, and Gorgonzola also add umami. Although we no longer use garum (Roman fish sauce), we do indulge in anchovy toppings for pizzas, pastes for toast, and sauces like Gentlemen’s Relish and Worcestershire. The Innuit and other polar inhabitants eat well-kept “rotted fish” to add umami to their daily diet. Caviar is another example of fish-based umami.

Cheese and sausages

The cravings for umami can be satisfied with cheeses and sausages.

3. Small quantities of a variety of ingredients used specifically for their seasoning properties: In both fresh and preserved forms, these include onions, scallions, leeks, garlic, peppers, carrot, celery, ginger, and lemon grass, plus all sorts of green herbs. Rozin has included in this category acidic ingredients (lemon/lime and tamarind) and sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup. In Asian cuisine, umami is generally found in seasonings such as soy sauce, bean paste, dried fish, kelp, and shitake mushrooms. Surprisingly, tomato ketchup contains sufficient glutamate to satisfy our craving for the umami taste. Think how many ethnic cuisines use tomatoes as a flavour ingredient in their food! Mushrooms are another umami source. Morels and porcini mushrooms are prized but the best is the Japanese shitake mushroom. Yeast extracts (Marmite and Vegemite) are used as a spread or flavouring for soups and are full of glutamic acid.

Flavour is an essential part of food experience. It provides a sensory label for our food which enables us to identify ourselves as member of a culture or group. It also permits us to identify the food as familiar and safe. It also serves to enhance the appeal of bland or boring foods like rice, pasta potatoes, grains.

What all food preparation has in common worldwide is the desire for “gustatory satisfaction”. Salt is one of the seasonings that helps provide this mouth-filling, rich, savoury taste but there are many others and they are the naturally occurring glutamates “which appear or enhance flavour producing a pleasurable and satisfying taste that is called umami”.


Photo Credits

Tomato pizza courtesy of The Way the Cookie Crumbles

Shitake mushrooms courtesy of Christian Science Monitor

Cheese plate courtesy of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival


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