Growing up in the Western world, we learned about the four main tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. That is until the 1980s rolled around, and a fifth taste gained massive popularity. Entire restaurants worldwide now devote themselves to getting this flavor just right. A flavor well-known in Japan for over a hundred years. A flavor so good that it lingers in your mouth, and you can’t help but happily say “ooh” and “ahh”… often through a mouthful of food. A flavor many can’t help but crave for more. It’s umami. So, what does umami taste like? And where can we get some? #IllHaveWhatShesHaving
The Five Tastes
Before we dive into the savory goodness that is umami, let’s talk about the different types of taste. Throughout history, taste (along with the other senses like sight) has helped humans survive by recognizing spoiled food or substances that could prove toxic. We have receptors for five primary tastes. They are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory — the last of which is also known as umami.
Savory. Brothy. Meaty. Mouthwatering. The essence of deliciousness. There is no exact English equivalent of umami, but people have uttered all of these phrases to describe this taste. It’s a flavor that adds a feeling of satisfaction to the aroma. When you taste it, you know it’s there.
Etymologically speaking, umami is a Japanese word (うま味) that essentially means “pleasant savory taste.” It’s derived from umai (うまい), meaning “good,” and the compound 旨味, which is used to describe food as delicious.
Scientifically speaking, all umami ingredients contain a high level of amino acid glutamate. Free glutamate levels in food can vary by ripeness and age of the food. The riper they are, the more savory they will be. Curing or fermenting food increases the amount of free glutamate as well. Imagine eating:
- A roast beef sandwich
- A burger with extra bacon and fries
- Parmesan-topped pizza
- Cured meats and aged cheeses
- Tomato, cream of mushroom, or chicken soup
- From a seafood buffet filled with oysters, scallops, shrimp, tuna, and more
Umami is that savory, irresistible taste in all of these foods! Other foods naturally high in umami include:
- Green peas
- Lotus root
- Fava beans
- Chicken eggs
And umami isn’t just found in food. Milk/breast milk and green tea are both umami-rich. You can also crank up the flavor of any dish with a little soy sauce, miso paste, and fish paste — all high in umami.
Is avocado umami?
Avocados have such a unique taste, putting them in a flavor category isn’t as easy as placing other food. This superfood can go on just about everything. However, umami is the closest flavor group it fits in. It has a mild but slightly savory and rich taste. This is why it works so well in salads, sandwiches, and other meals in need of a flavor boost.
Umami’s Past and Present
A Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered umami in 1908. He was trying to recreate the delicious taste of dashi — a traditional Japanese soup stock made from a brown seaweed called kombu and flakes of fish known as katsuobushi. He eventually figured out how to isolate the glutamic acid (glutamate), which characteristically matched the kombu flavor. Success!
He didn’t stop there, though. The salt form of glutamic acid is called monosodium glutamate, aka MSG. Umami on its own doesn’t exist in the spice aisle, but MSG is often used as a food enhancer. Kikunae patented his discovery and formed a company that mass-produced MSG. Today, MSG is almost as in-demand as salt or pepper. It is made by fermenting sugar beets, sugar cane, molasses, or cornstarch.
Umami was finally recognized as a scientific term for the fifth taste in 1985! In fact, there’s now an entire organization called the International Glutamate Information Service dedicated to providing accurate information about glutamate, umami, and MSG. They celebrate the discovery of umami every year on July 25. Who knew, right?
You can also celebrate this summer by making an umami-flavor-filled meal like scallops and mushroom risotto with miso broth and an abundance of Parmesan cheese. Bon appétit!
How to Make Umami
Are you interested in making your own umami paste? If you’re having trouble finding it in stores, there are plenty of umami flavored foods you can add to your meals like soy sauce, Asian fish sauce, mushrooms, tomato paste, seaweed, anchovies, meats, black olives, miso, chicken, and duck. However, if you want to make your own batch of umami paste to use in your dishes, throw these ingredients into a blender.
- One tablespoon of anchovy paste
- One tablespoon of soy sauce
- One tablespoon tomato paste
- Two tablespoons of freshly grated parmesan cheese
- Two tablespoons olive oil
- One teaspoon of Asian fish sauce
- Two cloves of minced garlic
- Three or four shitake mushrooms
- Half a teaspoon of red miso paste
- Half a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar
- A pinch of crushed red pepper or a little squirt of sriracha sauce
Now that you know what umami is and what it tastes like, make a meal out of it! We have a bunch of tasty recipes you’re sure to love filled with savory taste.
Miso-Tofu Ranch Dip: To get started, you’ll need soft tofu, fermented soybean paste, lemon juice, white wine vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, ground black pepper, sour cream, parsley, and fresh chives. Blend everything together and then mix the combination with parsley and chives.
Pasta with Pancetta and Miso: To make this umami meal, you’re going to near butter, pancetta, onion, miso, parsley, pepper, mozzarella, and pasta. Put your butter in a skillet and add pancetta. Cook this down until it’s brown, and then add the onion. Then boil your pasta and add your miso to the mix until it boils. Mix the pasta with the sauce and add your mozzarella and parsley to top it off.