Western researchers and gourmets have thought for centuries that there are only four basic tastes: salty, sweet, bitter and sour (acid). However, the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda discovered a fifth taste in 1907 calling it umami which may be described as tasty, meaty, savoury, or “delicious”.
The Chinese, gourmets since dawn of time, have been writing and discussing a taste sensation that they call “hot” since early 800 A.D., and famous Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French gourmet and author, wrote about it in his book Physiology of Taste in 1825, but referred to it as savoury.
Umami, Mr Ikeda discovered, is glutamic acid (a.k.a glutamate); it possesses a distinct taste quite apart from sweet, salty, acid and bitter. It gives richness to the food and occurs in the following – seaweed, soy sauce, green tea, sardines, peas, fermented beans, fresh tomato juice, fish sauce, and cheeses, particularly Parmesan Good sources of umami are also dried shiitake, matsutake, enokitake mushrooms, bonito tuna flakes, mackerel, sea bream, tuna, aged bed and salted dried sprats.
Many foods contain a certain amount of umami, this occurs in the various transformations during ripening of vegetables and fruits. For example, a ripe tomato has 10 times the glutamate of an unripe tomato. Drying, curing, aging, fermentation and dry cooking techniques increase umami levels.
Aged beef contains considerably more umami than fresh meat.
Fermentation gives soy sauce, Asian fish sauces and many condiments (hot sauces, Worcestershire Sauce, Vegemite, Bovril come to mind) high levels of umami.
Romans cherished their fermented fish entrails “sauce”. It probably had more umami than all other foodstuffs. They used this “sauce” to flavour their stew, soups and sauces.
Wines both red and white and beer that have hade extended lees contact have more elevated levels of umami and a deeper taste that lingers well after swallowing.
Chefs looking for concentrated tastes in their specialties use truffle oil, soy sauce, truffle butter, Parmiggiano Reggiano, and other aged cheeses.
Generally, long, slow-cooked stews taste better and more profound than those sautéed. Roasting and grilling are two other techniques to increase umami considerably.
If you add vodka to a tomato sauce it will taste better as the alcohol in the vodka acts as a solvent for the umami in fruit. A fee minced anchovies help increase the taste of tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar that of strawberries or raspberries.
Burgundian chefs pair braised beef and chicken with old red Burgundies to avoid clashing of tannins and umami.
Some people claim MSG (Monosodium Glutamate), a derivative of umami, to affect them adversely, yet they consume liberal amounts of soy sauce, Parmiggiano Reggiano, and ripe tomatoes with no noticeable discomfort.
Maybe their “brains” are suggesting an imaginary aversion!
Umami as a taste profile or dimension has its place in gastronomy, and serious cooks (both professional and amateur) would be more successful if they paid more attention to it.