Per Eating Well: The word “umami” is a Japanese word and roughly translates as “good flavor.” It’s the taste present in food that is sometimes described as “earthy” or “meaty” but isn’t salty, sweet, bitter or sour. It’s sometimes characterized as a pleasant savory taste. This taste comes from glutamic acid, an amino acid which occurs naturally in some foods like mushrooms. It’s also present in monosodium glutamate (MSG)—some say MSG is umami in its purest form.
Umami has been in the English language since 1979, but the definition is sometimes difficult to describe. Perhaps the one I like best is that it leaves you craving more.
Kazu Kato says: Umami is the foundation of Japanese cuisine. He acknowledged that it exists around the world: in the tomatoes and Parmesan cheese of Italy, for example, and in the miso, soy sauce, sake, and vinegar of Korea and China. The difference, according to Katoh, is rooted in geography. Japanese umami starts with Japanese terroir: “The temperature, and the moisture in the air. Vegetable growing, water. The dirt, the earth—it’s all important.” Then there’s technique: “The brewing and aging processes involved.” In French cooking, he said, “it’s all about adding. It’s about adding sauces, cooking it in bouillon, using oil, pouring more dressing on it. Japanese cooking is very, very simple. It’s about extracting.”
A Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda first put a name to this mysterious taste experience in 1908. He used kombu seaweed broth (I make my own) to pin down what it is that gives food “body” and enhances flavors. What he found were amino acids that he attributed to the meaty, heavy taste that improves the flavors of food. You can get this flavor experience in foods like aged cheese (Parmesan cheese, in particular), tomato and meat without adding salty, sweet, bitter or sour elements.
How umami tastes is notoriously hard to describe. Some people say that glutamates are responsible for “mouthfeel” and “body” in food without adding bitterness, sweetness, sourness or saltiness. Mushrooms are a good example of an umami-rich food—portobello and shiitake mushrooms in particular. They’re earthy and meaty without any flavoring added.
Adding umami can also enhance the flavor of other foods. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the Culinary Institute of America did a study on the effects of mushroom umami flavor on beef. They blended the mushrooms into meat for tacos and found that the addition of mushrooms improved the flavor of the meat without additional seasonings.
So, the four basic tastes, sweet, sour, bitter, and salt have made way for umami. The food does not have to be Japanese or even Asian. Perhaps you can think of a few? The obvious ones, to me, are soy sauce, miso, mirin, seaweed, fermented soybeans, dried shiitake mushrooms, kimchi, and the above-mentioned kombu. You might be more familiar with umami in cheese, mushroom, cured ham, anchovies, and sun-dried tomatoes.
Maybe I need to visit a placed called Umami Burger? Adam Fleischman of Umami Burger says: The Japanese define umami as “an over-all harmonious state of perfection where the ingredients come together, a really rounded and harmonious dish. They have a sort of zen way of looking at it.” But, he explained, “each chef uses it in the context of their country’s food. America has bold flavors. Japan’s are more subtle: kombu, dashi. Not so in your face.”
Please share your umami story with me!