What Is Umami?

Featured Article, Food and Travel, International Food, Recipe Testers, Social
on July 20, 2011
Mark Boughton/styling: Teresa Blackburn

A Japanese word that loosely translates as “deliciousness,” umami (oo-MAH-me) is widely recognized as the fifth taste, distinct from the favors classically recognized in the Western world—that is, sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Umami is a meaty, savory quality derived from amino acids. Foods said to produce umami include meats, cheeses, mushrooms, soy and fish sauces, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and seaweed.

Umami was identified in 1908 by Tokyo Imperial University researcher Kikunae Ikeda while studying the strong flavor of broth produced with seaweed. Ikeda found that an amino called glutamate produced the umami sensation, giving birth to the monosodium glutamate (msg) industry. His discovery had its critics, but in recent years, researchers have indeed shown that the human brain has taste receptors for umami.

While western gastronomes long recognized four tastes, classic Chinese cooks put “spicy” (or “pungent”) on the list, and Indian cuisine takes a further step with the addition of “astringent.”

While we’re talking taste, modern research proves what many long suspected: taste is a highly personal matter. A quarter of us are “supertasters,” born with an unusually high number of taste buds, while another 25 percent are “taste blind” and unable to detect certain tastes. Women are more likely than men to be supertasters.

If you suspect you might be one, don’t be too quick to pat yourself on the palate. Supertasters are often picky eaters, limiting their nutritional horizons. They’re also more hypersensitive to oral pain, and when it comes to spicy foods, they really feel the burn.

— By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.