Umami: You never say his name, yet you taste it every day

Because glutamate is a source of umami, it is often associated with Asian foods fortified with monosodium glutamate (MSG). However, as this map shows (and despite its Japanese name), umami is a truly global flavor. (Credit: Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)

Imagine if suddenly there was five cardinal directions, Snow White had the company of eight dwarfs, where there was thirteen months in the year? What if a number that seemed fixed forever was augmented by a quality or quantity that had been hidden in plain sight from the start?

Sweet, bitter, salty, sour – and umami

Something like this happened in the culinary sciences not so long ago. For most of history, humans have known and named only four taste qualities: sweet, bitter, salty, and sour. But the human tongue distinguishes a fifth, which remained unknown and unnamed until Kikunae Ikeda, professor of chemistry at the Imperial University of Tokyo, identified it in 1908.

Ikeda was intrigued by the prevailing taste of dashi, a Japanese soup broth, which he said did not resemble any of the four basic tastes. He took the main ingredient of the broth, a seaweed named Laminaria japonicasucceeded in isolating its main taste substance, and baptized it “umami” (from umai“delicious” in Japanese).

So, what does umami taste like? It’s been described as meaty and savory, but it’s a complex and subtle taste even at high concentrations. In fact, umami is more of an auxiliary flavor, enhancing the salty or sweet taste of other foods, which is why it has stayed under the radar for so long.

Umami comes from molecules found in meat (inosinate), plants (guanylate) or both (free glutamate). Certain processes like aging and fermentation create free glutamate, bringing out the umami flavor. (Think: deli meats or cheeses.) But umami is also strongly present in mushrooms, seafood, and tomatoes. The latter explains why ketchup is such a popular condiment: its umami character acts as a flavor enhancer.

Interest only took off after 1980

Although umami was discovered in the early 20th century, it’s only in recent decades that the concept has made inroads outside of Japan. In the West, scientific interest in umami did not take off until after 1980. (See chart.)

References in English-language sources to the four traditional tastes (top) and umami (bottom) for the period 1909-2019. Sweetness had been in decline since the 1920s but reached new heights after 2000. Bitter is far behind. Saltiness remains the least cited taste. (Of course, these four words have meanings other than culinary.) References to umami don’t take off until after 1980 and skyrocket after 2000. Note that the two charts have a different scale. (Credit: Google Ngrams/Ruland Kolen)

But as the map shows, umami has a global presence and a long history. Take for example garum, a popular fermented fish sauce throughout the Roman Empire. One of the most intriguing “known unknowns” of antiquity is the exact composition of this Roman condiment, a distant ancestor of Worcestershire sauce and ketchup.

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Other more contemporary umami-rich food products across Europe include selyodka (or Russian salted herring), kielbasa sausage from Poland and yeast extracts like marmite, which has divided opinion in the UK since 1902. .

Anyone for some alpaca jerky?

In Africa, umami flavors find expression in foods like dawa dawa, a carob product from West Africa, or shito, a shrimp paste popular in Ghana. Other fish-based umami foods can be found throughout Asia, such as shutdownki, a popular dried fish dish in Bangladesh, or prahok and tuktey, a fish paste and fish sauce from Cambodia.

Tomatoes are found all over the world, but this umami-esque vegetable originated in South America, as did jerky, the dried alpaca meat of Peru. Further up in the Americas there is mole sauce from Mexico as well as bacon, barbecue sauce and gravy in the United States.

In fact, umami is not a stranger to our table, but an old and frequent guest. We’ll remember that the next time we ask for the ketchup.

You may not say it every day, but you probably taste it every day. (Credit: Umami Information Center)

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