“Those who pay careful attention to their tastebuds will discover in the complex flavour of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter…”
Dr. Kikunae Ikeda.
So, apparently there’s a new taste in town. Well actually it’s not new, it was discovered and named back in 1908 in Japan but the western world have only recently adopted it. We all know about the four main tastes; sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Well now we can add “umami” to the list! U-what-y? Umami! Pronounced “oo- maa- meee. “
Despite it sounding like a form of exotic martial arts or like something you would yell out if you were really, really scared. (like, if a dragon is chasing you type of scared) it is in fact a new taste, discovered and singled out by a Dr Kikunae Ikeda; a Japanese scientist who wanted to know what made dashi and miso soup so tasty.
So what is umami? What does it taste like?
Well, I want you to close your eyes…. actually don’t because then you won’t be able to read on, so instead just imagine the taste sensations and disco in your mouth when you eat foods like spaghetti bolognese, gravy, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, vegemite, shellfish, cured meats, tomato sauce and very ripe tomatoes. (I don’t mean Australian hydroponic tomatoes, I’m talking about the tomatoes you get in Italy or Spain, the tomatoes that have enjoyed a lifetime of sunshine and siestas.)
Umami means pleasant savoury taste. It translates as “umai” meaning delicious and “mi” meaning taste. Delicious taste. Ok, so far so good. It has also been described as brothy or meaty but different to salty.
Now for the science-y bit. Umami is detected through taste receptors on our tongues that recognise glutamate and amino acid. Unlike our other tastebuds which like to hang out in groups, the umami tastebuds are a lot more social. They are found all over the tongue and are made of a different configuration to the other taste receptors. Having said that the umami taste is quite difficult to detect as it isn’t a flavour which stands out on its own. It is somewhat vague and elusive and shows up in a wide variety of protein-rich foods. Umami features prominently in things that are slow cooked such as lamb shanks. The slow cooking process allows the amino acids to be released which creates the umami taste. Ok enough science, let’s get back to talking about spaghetti bolognese!
Ripe tomatoes and soy sauce are two ingredients said to be exceptionally high in umami.
So, umami…. It is the satisfying flavour that makes people crave steak or roast meat with juices. It is the comforting richness of grated parmesan cheese. It is the deep, satisfying flavour of a bowl of chicken or minestrone soup. It is that delicious taste that makes you salivate and want more. It is those lip-smacking, bowl licking, deliciously balanced, yummy flavours that make your tongue sing.
Human beings are pretty amazing. When I think about food and all the recipe books available and all the cooking shows and different cuisines out there I am always so surprised at what we have been able to invent over the centuries and the creative way we can turn humble ingredients into amazing meals. We have discovered many different ways of cooking and preparing food and making it more palatable and pleasant to eat. We have invented different flavour combinations and ways to extract various tastes from foods. We have certainly come a long way since the days of eating berries from the trees and dinosaur legs…. from the dinosaurs.
Umami is the fifth taste and probably one of the most universally liked. Many people crave it without being able to give it a name. Well now you can.
Lamb shanks and parmesan cheese both contain that delicious, satisfying taste we all love.
If you want to increase the levels of umami in your cooking add a dash of soy sauce, kecap manis or worchestershire sauce. Grate cheese over your food, especially Italian. Add mushrooms, particularly portobello and shiitake as they are exceptionally high in umami. If you have a rind of hard cheese such as parmesan, you can toss that into a simmering pot when you cook soup or stews. That will definitely add a umami taste. You can also find that old bottle of fish sauce that you have had for about 3 years because you once made a recipe that required it. Well now you have a reason to use it again! Hooray! Umami! Now, who’s hungry?