If you’ve eaten a well-ripened tomato, aged parmesan cheese, porcini mushrooms, cured ham, miso soup or even French fries dressed with ketchup, you’ve experienced umami. The sensation is difficult to characterize but some describe it as savory, meaty, mouth-watering, and having depth or roundness. While many fail to recognize umami when they taste it, it plays no less an important role in making food taste delicious.
So what is it exactly? Salty, sweet, sour and bitter are fairly straightforward tastes, but umami is slightly different. Umami is a distinct but difficult to describe, savory taste caused by the interaction of glutamates (amino acids), and ribonucleotides (naturally occurring compounds in food) reacting with receptors on the tongue, or taste buds. Some umami taste buds respond specifically to glutamate in the same way that "sweet" buds respond to sugar. Think about biting into a cheddar cheeseburger with ketchup, spaghetti with marinara sauce and a dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano or a salt-kissed slice of Jambon de Bayonne – the saliva-inducing, mouth-filling, deep, satiating taste – that is umami. In addition to being a unique stand-alone taste, umami seems to enhance foods it is combined with, intensifying other flavors as well.
History & controversy
Although the term is relatively new, the concept of umami is ancient. Examples of umami-rich foods can be traced back centuries. The taste appeared in early cured and fermented foods, such as the Roman condiment, garum, and fermented Asian sauces such as soy sauce, which is thought to have originated over 2,800 years ago.
In the late 1800s, the “king of chefs and chef of kings”, Auguste Escoffier, discovered and noted the unique character of umami, when he developed his famous veal bone stock. The exquisite dishes he enriched with the stock had a new quality – one that was deep, rich, and could not be described as salty, sweet, sour or bitter. Although he couldn’t fully articulate this new taste, causing French scientists to diminish his discovery, Escoffier knew he had stumbled onto something important. Well-heeled Parisians thought so too, flocking to the Ritz Hotel in droves to experience his dishes for themselves.
A short time after Escoffier’s discovery, the Japanese expression “umami” was coined. In 1908, Tokyo University Professor, Kikunae Ikeda, while studying the palatability of broth made from kombu seaweed, noted that the taste could not be classified as salty, sweet, sour or bitter. He combined umai "delicious" and mi "taste" to describe the broth's rich, deep, savory quality and wrote a scientific article outlining his find. But just as with Escoffier, scientists rejected Ikeda’s findings. The traditional four-taste model was so dominant, umami’s status as a fifth taste was considered controversial until nearly 100 years after its discovery when a new generation of scientists finally took a closer look. They discovered, just as Escoffier and Professor Ikeda had alleged that indeed there is a fifth taste. And it’s delicious.