The term umami regularly pops up in cookery shows and foodie conversations. So if you’re not quite up to speed on umami, we bring you all you need to know – including how you’re already experiencing it – and share some stand out umami-rich recipes…
The fifth basic taste
We’ve long known our tongues can taste sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavours. In 2002, this group of tastes grew by one more when scientists identified umami taste receptors on the human tongue and a fifth basic taste became official.
Umami was identified long before this though. Back in 1908 while enjoying a bowl of his wife’s vegetable broth, Dr Kikunae Ikeda noticed that the savoury flavour of the seaweed didn’t fit into the four traditional taste categories. He named it umami, meaning ‘essence of deliciousness’. That must’ve been quite some soup!
What does it taste like?
Umami has been described as meaty, earthy and savoury. It’s a flavour that spreads across the tongue and lasts long after you’ve swallowed your food, leaving a deep feeling of satisfaction (we’re salivating already).
Technically speaking, it’s the flavour of glutamate, an amino acid that’s one of the building blocks of protein. It can be found in foods like mushrooms, steak, aged cheeses, many types of fish including salmon and anchovies, and much more besides.
As well as having its own distinctive taste, umami also enhances other flavours by giving them more depth and fullness. If you can’t eat chips without ketchup or pasta without parmesan, it’s because you’re craving the umami that these toppings add to the dish.
Is MSG umami?
It is indeed. MSG (monosodium glutamate) is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, essentially man-made umami in powder form. Fun fact: it was invented by the same guy who identified umami, Dr Kikunae Ikeda.
MSG is a popular seasoning and flavour enhancer (remember how we said umami elevates other flavours?) commonly used in Asian cooking, fast food and tinned goods such as soups. Think of it as an instant way to add umami.
Umami rich recipes
From using cured meats and aged cheeses to adding umami-rich seasonings like soy sauce and tomato paste, there are plenty of ways to get those ‘essence of deliciousness’ flavours.
Thanks to its high levels of glutamate, Marmite is basically umami in a jar. Upgrade it from a toast spread with this bizarre but flavourful Marmite and pancetta pasta, Marmite popcorn and this rich beef pie with cheesy Marmite cobbler crust.
It’s not all savoury dishes either. These gorgeously chewy triple-chocolate cookies include a hint of white miso paste for a subtle umami flavour.
So, here’s the takeaway: if you’re drooling over a mouthful of deeply flavourful and delicious food, there’s a good chance that’s because of umami. Go get some!