“What is umami?” This is one of the most frequently asked questions at Moto, so we thought it was about time we answered it!
Umami is categorised as one of the five basic tastes, after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Out of these core tastes, umami is the most recently discovered, identified by a Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908.
The story goes that while Dr. Ikeda was enjoying his wife’s boiled tofu in a bowl of kombu dashi (a seaweed broth that continues to act as a staple in Japanese cooking), he could not accurately define the delicious savoury flavour he was tasting through any of the previously identified basic tastes. That is when he gave birth to this brand new fifth taste, “umami.” This is a word that is quite difficult to define in the English language but we have seen it translated as “essence of deliciousness,” as well as a “pleasant savoury taste.” We also came across the following definition in ‘Koji Alchemy‘ that resonated with us – “a deep, rich, unctuous flavour to foods that leaves us satiated and fulfilled as we eat.”
Some other characteristics of umami include:
- Mouthfilling, spreads across the tongue
- Longlasting, persistent
- Mouthwatering, promotes salivation
At Moto, the short and sweet description we like to give is that umami is a mouthwatering, savoury deliciousness. You may agree with our definition after we give you a few examples of umami-rich foods. Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, anchovies, grilled steak, katsuobushi (bonito flakes), soy sauce and other fermented foods, sake (of course we had to mention sake) …and don’t forget MSG! MSG (or monosodium glutamate), the infamous white powder responsible for making all of your fast food go-to’s and Chinese takeaways so irresistible, is umami in its purest form. It is the exact chemical compound found naturally in animal and plant proteins that lend themselves to the flavour we now call umami. For today, we won’t get deep into the specific biochemical reactions that take place behind the production of umami flavours but just know that the chemical compound just mentioned is called glutamate: an amino acid that is naturally produced in the body and in many foods.
In fact, glutamate is actually the most abundant of all amino acids found in nature; all creatures produce glutamate in their bodies, and it plays an extremely important role in the survival of each species, including humans. Did you know that umami is the first taste we experience before we are even born? This is because while we are in the mother’s womb during infancy, glutamate is found in the highest concentration in the mother’s amniotic fluid. Even after we are born for the first half-year or so of our lives, we continue to primarily taste umami alone as glutamate is the most abundant amino acid in human breast milk!
Wild, isn’t it? Given how we have been tasting umami our whole lives, it is actually shocking how it was not discovered as one of our core basic tastes until so recently!
Yet the most exciting part about better understanding umami is when you start unlocking its power in exponentially elevating your wining and dining experience. As mentioned before, umami-rich ingredients enhance the depth of flavour. Vegetable stock is a great example – if you take a sip of vegetable stock alone, it tastes far too simple, one-dimensional, boring. However, when you incorporate umami to that vegetable stock, let’s say with some mushrooms or tomatoes, then it becomes multidimensional, moreish and absolutely delectable.
Incorporating umami into your meal also allows your ingredients to taste even more like themselves. What do we mean by that, exactly? Well, umami broth added to a chicken dish will make the chicken taste even more “chicken-like” by enhancing its flavour. This is why for a white fish soup, you would first make an umami-rich dashi broth from water, kombu and bonito flakes in order to enhance the flavour of your white fish of choice ten-fold.
With all this being said, you don’t want to overdo it in the umami department either! The term “umami bomb” is often thrown around to describe a drink or a dish in a positive sense but we believe that less is more when it comes to umami. Like sprinkling some salt on a triple-chocolate cookie in order to add a contrasting element from what would otherwise be a dessert that is far too sweet, try to add umami ingredients to your dishes as a way to balance out while simultaneously heightening the other ingredients. So for that same triple-chocolate cookie, you can try adding some umami-rich miso instead of the salt next time around. You’ll know exactly what we mean by how umami can add further richness, long-lasting depth, a point of contrast and utmost deliciousness to that cookie!
Hopefully, this is enough umami talk for one day to get you excited about incorporating more umami flavours in your every day! Just in case you needed a little help getting started, we recommend this umami-rich Sake Martini that you can easily create from the comfort of your own home.
Still can’t get enough umami? Check out the following awesome resources that cover the topics we touched upon today in a lot more depth: