Until recently, it was thought that humans could only recognise four different tastes: bitterness, saltiness, sourness and sweetness. Now, however, we can add savouriness, or umami, to the list
Although knowledge of the fifth taste, umami, dates back to 1908, it has only been commonly recognised in Europe for the past twenty years. Umami’s scientific name is monosodium glutamate, an ingredient widely used in Asian cuisine and available in powder form as a flavour enhancer.
The term umami is a loanword from Japanese and means, ‘pleasant savoury taste’. A more poetic definition describes it as, ‘a subtle but long-lasting taste in that generates a velvety sensation by stimulating the back of the mouth.’ Another definition describes umami as ‘a subtle, very complex taste that combines with other ingredients to enhance flavour and lend the whole mouthfeel a unique, enveloping and long-lasting taste.’
Scientist Kikunae Ikeda (Tokyo Imperial University) was the first to coin the term by combining the Japanese word umai (‘delicious’) with the word mi (‘taste’). He used it to refer to foods with a delicious, pronounced and intense taste after searching for a suitable way to convey the flavour of Kombu seaweed broth which owed its flavour to its glutamate content.
Umami taste is found in foods such as dried bonito flakes, shiitake mushrooms, cured ham, red meat like beef, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, and sardines, ripe or dried tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, soy sauce, and British favourite, Lea & Perrin’s sauce.
After analysing the effects of umami as a flavour enhancer, it was discovered that when foods containing glutamate were combined with foods containing ribonucleotides, their flavours multiplied, resulting in a far more intense taste. A natural chemical reaction that shows how umami adds depth, complexity and nuance to the flavour of food.
Aside from its flavour-boosting properties, umami also has health benefits. One such benefit being that it promotes salivation and helps reduce salt intake given that monosodium glutamate contains two-thirds less sodium than salt. As an enhancer, it also reduces some foods’ bitterness and enhances the sweetness of others.