Since the beginning of time, we have based the human sense of taste upon four basic flavor profiles: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. When cooking, we often ask ourselves, “Is this too salty?” or “Do I need to add sugar?” How often do we find ourselves asking if our meal is rich in umami? What is umami?
Umami is the fifth taste, which had remained unnamed until the early 1900s when Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo, discovered it. A Japanese-coined phrase, umami can be defined as a “pleasant savory taste” or “yummy.” Ikeda found a distinct taste in dashi, a cooking stock used in Japanese cuisine. Its taste did not fit in with the other four basic tastes, and his research led him to find that there was a fifth basic taste that needed to be recognized.
When foods ferment, like cheese, or when meat begins to cook under the heat of an open flame, the proteins undergo a molecular change. The proteins are then completely broken apart into various units, one of which is a molecule called L-glutamate. Glutamate is the singular molecule responsible for umami. Similar to the other four basic tastes, umami is sensed when L-glutamate binds to specific receptors on your tongue, causing a chain reaction of chemical processes resulting in taste.
From an anatomical standpoint, the tongue map suggests that receptors for the other four primary taste buds have boundaries that separate them. However, umami receptors are said to be found all over the tongue. Basically, umami has broken through all of the boundaries which restrict the other four basic tastes. Umami, you little rebel.
Umami has found a very comfortable home in the culinary world. Cutting edge chefs are using multiple umami ingredients to create dishes that can be considered umami bombs, or dishes rich in umami. Umami bombs can be found in various cuisines. Many classical food pairing phenomena, such as the cheeseburger, can be explained by the interaction of umami-rich ingredients. The cheeseburger made its mark long ago in the United States’ fast food industry. However, restaurateurs have managed to reinvent this classic American fare by focusing on using umami-rich ingredients. Popular California and New York food chain, Umami Burger, is dedicated to creating the “perfect mouthful” for patrons. Their signature burger, the “Umami Burger,” is served with shitake mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, parmesan crisp, and umami ketchup.
Other popular American fare, such as pizza and submarine sandwiches, are rich in umami. Perhaps these foods have become iconic in America due to their umami-rich ingredients.
Traditional Asian foods rich in umami are fish paste, soy sauce, miso paste, and bonito flakes. Other umami-filled foods include ketchup, cured meats, fish, shellfish, tomatoes, spinach, aged cheese, and even green tea. Even potatoes have a degree of umami. Although umami is not palatable by itself, it is enhanced by the proper use of salt. Perhaps that is why “you can’t eat just one” potato chip.
Umami has been secretly enhancing food experiences for hundreds of centuries. Caesar salad is a classic dish bursting with umami. Anchovies and parmesan are considered a rich and classic umami pairing.
Interestingly, breast milk is also noted to be rich in umami. It is said to contain the same amount of umami that is found in broths such as miso or dashi. Looks like infants may have one leg up on foodies across globe. Got umami?
Experienced food scientist, Zeinab Ali, sheds an entirely different light on the subject. She explains, “Expectations for foods [one] can reference from memory, and with pleasant experiences, heighten umami levels.” When one can relate a particular food to a pleasing memory, the food itself conjures up the feelings associated with that memory as well. As umami is often referred to as “pleasant,” this also directly implies that umami affects the way the mind retrieves memories. In other words, umami can also be defined as the “comfort” in comfort foods.
An example of this notion can be taken from the Disney Pixar film Ratatouille. In the final scenes of the movie, a harsh food critic is brought back to his childhood by eating the ratatouille. He recalls coming home from a rough day at school and his mother placing a dish of ratatouille in front of him, which, in turn, gives him comfort and ease. This recollection causes him to feel contentment and joy. He has developed a cognitive relationship with the peasant dish, ratatouille, a dish filled with umami ingredients such as ripened tomatoes, eggplant, and caramelized onions.
The pressures of cooking for family and guests can get to all of us at times. When planning your next dinner at home, consider using umami-rich ingredients and pairings. Remember to keep it simple, fresh, and most importantly, keep it umami.
Saira Mohiuddin is the chef-owner of Spicy Haute Chefing Co. (firstname.lastname@example.org) in Lake in the Hills, Illinois. She offers in-home halal fine-dining experiences and group cooking classes. Find her on Facebook at Spicy Haute Chefing Co.