Umami, the lesser known of the five basic tastes (along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter), is piquing online interest today as a chain of Japanese-style LA burger joints has become a hot new food trend. The question most people seem to have is, what is umami anyway?
Loosely described as the element of savoriness, umami comes from the Japanese umami (うま味) meaning “savory taste’. Scientists have long debated whether umami could be considered a basic taste; but in 1985 at the first Umami International Symposium in Hawaii, the term was officially recognized as appropriate to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides. Yum.
The UMAMI Information Center describes umami as a “pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.”
They say the taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors. Most people can’t easily identify umami as they can sweet, sour and salty; think of it as savory earthiness, as you’d detect in meat, mushrooms and some vegetables. The flavor is found to be most pronounced in fish, cured meats, vegetables (e.g. mushrooms, ripe tomatoes) or green tea, and fermented and aged products. Breast milk contains roughly the same amount of umami as Japanese broths (known as dashi), so it should be a familiar flavor to most of us.