The four tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter — underpin every dish we eat. Smart cooks reach routinely for a bit of honey, a smidgeon of salt, a splash of lemon, or a drop of bitters to balance a dish, and fat too, like butter, oil, or whipping cream. Asian and Latin cooks add pungent spicy-hot chilies. Add the taste bomb called umami [pronounced oo-MA-mee], and the result is food so lick-smackingly yummy that my mouth wants to get up and sing of its own accord.
Umami the word and the concept are Japanese, translated variously as “savoury,” “essence,” “deliciousness,” “especially satisfying,” or, most poetically, “more-ishness.”
Umami is best known as the dominant ingredient in the flavour-enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG). It is the leading culprit in the infamous Chinese Restaurant Syndrome of flushed face, elevated heartrate, and nausea, although, according to the Mayo Clinic, and food scientist Harold McGee, toxicologists have concluded MSG is a harmless ingredient for most people.
But umami refers to the taste of glutamates that naturally occur in a wide variety of foods, including fermented and aged foods like Worcestershire sauce, Parmesan and Roquefort cheeses, soy sauce, anchovies, Marmite, dried mushrooms, and fermented fish sauce. Add them routinely to your food for an extra blast of yum. As well, if you eat aged beef, cured meats like prosciutto, stinky old cheese, or miso soup, or if you drink good red wine, you experience umami pretty much in a pure form.
Umami dates back to 1907, when a Japanese chemist discovered that kombu seaweed formed crystals of glutamate – an abundant amino acid – for a taste neither sweet, sour, salty or bitter, but savoury, rich and meaty. He christened the new taste umami; in Japanese, umai means delicious, and mi means essence. Naturally, there was money to be made, and in 1909, a Japanese company began making and selling MSG made from wheat protein. Then another scientist reported finding umami in the dried bonito tuna flakes used to make dashi (broth); and between 1950 – 1970, more forms of umamai were found in mushrooms, sake, shellfish, wine, and beef broth.
But we often use the terms “taste” and “flavour” interchangeably (“The vanilla ice cream tastes good” and “I like the salty flavour of clams”), so umami and the other tastes may seem complicated. It helps to remember that “taste” generally refers to stimuli directly affecting the tongue, and “flavour” is taste plus aroma. To put it simply, taste happens in the mouth, aroma happens in the nasal cavity, and flavour happens when the two sensations meet in the brain.
There are other flavour/taste complications. Some things, like cranberries, red wine, coffee, and black tea, contain tannins, sometimes so astringent that mouths go all puckery. Substances containing capsaicin, the searing chemical in chile peppers, cause a burning sensation. Substances sensed as cooling are found in menthol or camphor (cloves); as well, research into fat has revealed a potential taste receptor that responds to foods rich in fat. All of this complicates what originally looked like the simple act of balancing a dish. So in comparison, it’s easy to speak umami’s language even with your mouth full. If first we eat, then we say, “Yum! That tastes more-ish!” we just had a blast of umami.
When I began reading about umami two decades ago, I realized that I had instinctively relied on umami for much of my professional cooking career. My meatloaf is a good example. Serves 8 with leftovers.
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, minced
1 Tbsp. paprika
½ tsp. smoked paprika
8-10 mushrooms, minced
1 tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried thyme
1 red bell pepper
2 lb. lean ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
1 cup fine bread crumbs
3 Tbsp. soy sauce
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
½ cup minced parsley
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Set oven to 350 F. Heat the oil, add the garlic, sauté, then add onions and paprika. Sauté for about 5 minutes, then add the mushrooms and sauté another 3 minutes. Add the thyme and oregano. Let cool.
Put the bell pepper into the flame of a gas stove or under a broiler. When it blackens, transfer it to a bowl, cover, and let steam a few minutes. Peel and discard the skin and seeds, then mince.
Combine all ingredients. Mix gently by hand. Line a sheet pan with parchment, manually shape the loaf directly on the pan, and place in the oven. Bake 1 hour, or until internal temperature registers 140F. Let rest 15 minutes before slicing.
As a starter kit, buy Asian fish sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, canned tomatoes, Parmesan, Marmite, and dried shiitake mushrooms.
Umami is also present in:
vegetables and nuts: dried peas and legumes, mature potatoes, tomatoes, red bell peppers, squash, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds;
sea vegetables: kombu, arame, wakame, dulse, nori, kelp;
mature meats and poultry: long-cooked duck or turkey; braised tougher cuts of beef like brisket, shank, chuck; pork, cured pork products like Spanish jamon, Italian prosciutto, and bacon; veal and venison; organ meats; all slow-simmered protein-based stocks;
eggs, dairy products; goat and sheep cheeses; older, complex cheeses: brie, gouda, emmenthal, cheddar, hard aged cheeses like Parmesan, blue-veined cheeses;
grains: corn, rice, fermented and slow-rising sourdough breads;
shellfish, cephalopods, cold-water high-fat fish: anchovies, herring, sardines, tuna, salmon, trout, monkfish, sea bass; pickled, dried or cured fish; oysters, scallops, mussels, clams, shrimp, crab, squid, octopus;
fermented pickled fruits and vegetables: kosher dills, sauerkraut, kimchi, poi, pickled ginger, umeboshi (pickled plum);
soy and soy products: soy sauce, tempeh, miso, fermented bean paste;
mushrooms, fungi, truffles: the deeper the colour, the more umami, thus portobellos, morels and porcini have high umami, oysters, chanterelles and cremini have medium, and enoki and button have very little; dried have more umami than fresh; but white truffles have more umami than black;
condiments: fermented fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup (loaded with umami tomatoes), tomato salsa;
fermented, brewed, and distilled booze: older, earthier wines; fortified wines like sherry, port, Madeira; sake, beer, whisky.