What is Umami?

September 10, 2018

When searching for Japanese ingredients, you will read the word "Umami" often, so what is it? Umami is something can never be missed in Japanese cuisine. A common misconception is that umami is a flavour, however, it is actually one of the 5 main tastes. Umami joins this group along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. These tastes make up the 5 main tastes of the palate. It is also a common misconception that umami is an artificial flavour as MSG is often used to give an umami taste to food, however, other natural ingredients can be used for the same results.

Umami was discovered by Japanese scientist by the name Ikeda. Which is why the 5th taste is a borrowed word from the Japanese language. Ikeda knew that kombu (kelp) has a distinctive taste. He realised that the taste is different to sweetness, saltines, bitterness, and sourness. In 1908, he succeeded to extract glutamine from kombu and he named this taste "UMAMI". It is undocumented but Ikada could have derived the name of his discovery after the Japanese word "umai" which translates as tasty or delicious.  

So what is umami is made from? It isn't really made from anything. It is a taste that you experience when 1 or more different acids are present in food. Glutamic acid, inosinic acid and guanylic acid are required to give you that umami kick.

Glutamic acid is found in kombu, cheese and tomatos. 

Inosinic acid is contained in fish and meat. Bonito flakes are one of the most known umami for dashi. Bacon also contains inosinic acid. 

Guanylic acid is contained in shiitake mushrooms and nori.

(Photo credit:umamino.jp)

 It is also noted that when combining two of the acids, you can increase the umami. This happens when you combine glutamic acid and inosinic acid. This can be achieved by using tomato and bacon or bonito and dashi. These combinations are reported to increase the umami seven times greater than eating the ingredients on their own. These ingredients have been used in dishes in Europe and China for centuries. The technique of making stocks using ingredients that contain these acids are still main stay for any kitchen. Making soup stock with vegetables and meat is a good example of how to mix two of the acids to increase the umami.  

Fermenting food also creates umami. Proteins are dissolved in the process which results in an umami taste. That is why soy sauce and miso are so tasty! 

Miso Paste

Miso Paste

Why do we need Umami? What does it do?

It adds a certain savoury taste that cannot be described. It also boosts the flavours of the ingredients used in the dish. It also removes bitterness from some ingredients and fishy smells from seafood, giving them a more delicate taste.

If you would like to try and add extra umami to your dishes without the effort of making stocks or marinating meat with shio koji, MSG is a quick fix and not as bad for your health as is lead to believe. 

Liquid Shio Koji

Liquid Shio Koji

Dashi Making Kit

Dashi Making Kit

Vegan Kombu Dashi Powder

Vegan Kombu Dashi

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