Umami 101

If it’s not sweet, sour, bitter or salty; it’s got to be the fifth taste - umami. Merriam-Webster online lists umami as ‘the taste sensation that is produced by several amino acids and nucleotides (such as glutamate and aspartate) and has a rich or meaty flavour characteristic of cheese, cooked meat, mushrooms, soy, and ripe tomatoes.’

Although it’s been around for centuries - the Romans used to make an umami-rich fermented fish sauce called garum - it’s taken a long while to reach the mainstream. Officially identified in 1908 by a Japanese scientist, it took nearly another century before it became widely known and accepted into the Western culinary world.

So what exactly is this fifth basic taste? According to the Umami Information Center, established in Japan in 1982, it is a ‘pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. As the taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavours, most people don't recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role in making food taste delicious.’

Ajinomoto, the Japanese multination food and biotechnology corporation, lists umami as having three distinct properties: its taste spreads across the tongue, it lasts longer than other basic tastes, and it provides a mouthwatering sensation. Like the other basic tastes, detecting umami is essential for survival. Umami compounds are typically found in high-protein foods, so tasting umami tells your body that an item of food contains protein, and in response to that, your body secretes saliva and digestive juices to help digest the proteins. 

Umami-rich foods listed on Healthline range from seaweeds (go sushi!), kimchi, aged cheeses, and green tea to a variety of seafood, meat (bacon and dry/cured ham are particularly high on the glutamate scale) to tomatoes and mushrooms. If you’re still struggling to put your finger on what this fifth taste tastes like, just think of Marmite or oyster sauce - Marmite is high in umami flavour, because it’s fermented with yeast, while oyster sauce is umami-rich, because it’s made with boiled oysters or oyster extract, which are high in glutamate.

So there you have it, umami – the fifth basic taste, although hardly basic in terms of its structure and importance. You can find out more about this elusive taste at the Umami Information Center and if you fancy experimenting with a few dishes, remember to order all your high-quality meat from N1, your leading Cape Town meat wholesalers.