It is said that humans can recognize five different tastes: bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami. This last taste, the most difficult to describe, is unknown to many people. That is why today, I will try to explain what Umami, the fifth taste, is.
In fact, its knowledge is relatively recent. However, the search for these flavor-enhancing foods was already a tradition even in ancient Rome where Garum, a fermented fish sauce rich in Umami, was used. The word Umami comes from the Japanese language and means tasty.
Umami is derived from two words, Umai (delicious) and mi (flavor), and has been used since the term was chosen by the Japanese Kikunae Ikeda to refer to foods when they have a delicious and pronounced or intense flavor.
The umami flavor was not identified in a strict sense until 1908 when the scientist Kikunae Ikeda of the Imperial University of Tokyo discovered that glutamate was responsible for the flavor that had the broth from the cooking of Kombu seaweed, whose flavor was different from the traditionally known flavors, sweet, sour, bitter and salty, calling Umami to the resulting flavor.
Subsequently, other foods were investigated, discovering this fifth flavor’s presence, such as bonito shavings or katsuobushi, in the first photo, or shiitake mushrooms, whose cooking also produces delicious broths very rich in Umami.
The fifth flavor was also discovered in many other foods, such as cheese, anchovies, ripe tomatoes, dried tomatoes, and many other ingredients such as soy sauce or cured ham.
Although there is one practically pure product Umami, Ajinomoto, or monosodium glutamate, many foods contain Umami. Umami powder, widely used in Asian cuisine, can be purchased in any store. Still, we are more interested in discovering which foods are rich in Umami to combine them and enhance our stews and other recipes. A good example would be cured ham.
How to enhance umami in our dishes?
Later, umami’s effects began to be analyzed, not so much for its own flavor but for the flavor that enhances other ingredients. Although many of us did not know what umami was, we were already using it unconsciously in many of our recipes. A mixture such as cheese and tomato (typical in pasta dishes) or enriching a broth with bones or a ham shank are ways to enhance each ingredient’s flavors by the use of umami flavor.
The umami powder manages to enhance the individual flavor of the other ingredients used. This happens for chemical reasons since foods containing glutamate combined with ribonucleotides cause their respective flavors to multiply.
The splash of anchovy sauce in the cooking of lentils with chorizo makes the flavor is greatly enhanced. The same happens with the combination of anchovies, cheese, and tomato in the Italian alla puttanesca sauce.
Our papillae perceive umami when we eat glutamate foods or with other compounds such as guanosine or inside in its derivatives inosinate or guanylate. The peculiarity is the perception of this “tasty” flavor and the balance it provides to other flavors since, for example, it lowers the sensation of bitterness. It enhances the sweetness, leaving the food more harmonized, more balanced, or more rounded.
As it is not a flavor in which we are “educated,” it is not easy to distinguish umami -as we do with sweet, bitter, sour, or salty- but it is easy to notice the effect it produces by getting a more intense flavor, which causes salivation and makes us feel that the dish has a special “touch.” So give yourself a chance, run to the nearest store, buy some umami powder, and include it in your favorite recipes; it’s a safe bet.