Umami is a very misunderstood term in the West… although it has been understood for many years at a taste level by chefs and foodies alike. The usual translation is “pleasant savoury taste” or just savoury. It adds another taste to what was believed to be the four basics tastes of sweet, salty, bitter and sour. But umami is complex. It is delicious and it is science-y.
Umami, or the cause of the flavour of umami, was officially discovered in 1908 by a Japanese chemist and professor named Kikunae Ikeda. He used the word うま味 umami from the words うまい umai meaning delicious and 味 mi, meaning taste. His discovery came about from realising, while eating soup, that his broth was more delicious than usual, and attributed it to the addition of kombu (kelp~seaweed). Upon studying the chemical composition of the kombu, he was able to isolate glutamic acid. An amino acid that is present in proteins. Professor Ikeda went on to develop a method for extracting glutamic acid, or MSG, from wheat and soy, and founded the company Ajinomoto Co., Inc. It presently employs 32,000 people.
Since this discovery it has further been established that by combining foods high in glutamates with foods that contain inosinate (E631) or guanylate (E627) the taste intensity is increased and the need for salt is decreased.
Glutamate rich foods include: cheese, soy, miso, mushrooms, onion, kombu, asparagus, ripe tomatoes, milk, broccoli and, believe it or not, Vegemite. (Vegemite is made from yeast extract which is high in glutamic acid).
Inosinate foods include: sardines, bonito, katsuboshi (bonito flakes), poultry, pork and beef.
Guanylate foods include: dried porcini, dried shiitake and dried morels.
Many of these foods have been paired together forever. Tomato and cheese with meat, dashi stock from kombu and bonito flakes, sometimes with miso. Chicken soup with leeks.
When I try to explain umami I often use the word nurturing. Umami flavours are the comfort foods that make you feel warm and safe when you eat them. A good bowl of ramen broth can almost reduce me to tears. An awesome deeply umami sake with a smoked cheddar, thanks to The Sake Mistress, makes me want to describe it as “Mother’s Milk”… upon further investigation, I found that this flavour is indeed the flavour of breast milk. The highest occurring amino acid in breast milk is glutamate. It is our first flavour and certainly a nourishing one. It makes total sense to me now that I love Japanese food and the umami richness so much.
Do you love umami rich foods? What is your favourite? Super Sake Boy loves Vegemite, even though he is not Australian. Let me know in the comments…
Feature Image credit: Wikipedia.