What is umami?
Do you ever wonder what it is that makes Japanese ramen broth so lasting and savory in its flavor? How about aged cheese such as parmesan, and how it enhances the flavor of pasta? What is this mysterious flavor that seems to go beyond our usual categories of salt, sweet, bitter, and sour?
This flavor, which we have now come to recognize as the “fifth basic flavor,” is none other than the umami flavor.
The word umami is often translated vaguely as a “pleasant savory taste,” and is a portmanteau of the Japanese words umai, which refers to something pleasant or delicious; and mi, which refers to “essence” or “taste”.
The story of how this unlikely “fifth taste” was discovered is one that is partly of cultural self-discovery, and also partly of advancements in science and chemistry.
Discovery of Umami
Though umami would take decades before being officially recognized as a distinct flavor of its own, a chemist at the Tokyo Imperial University during 1908 named Dr. Kikunae Ikeda was credited for its discovery.
Dr. Ikeda was at the time investigating the unique flavor of a particular key ingredient in Japanese clear broths called Dashi. It was known for its subtle flavor which cannot be so easily categorized as any of the four basic flavors (sweet, salty, bitter, sour). His investigation took him to focus on one particular ingredient which is central in making the Dashi broth: kombu seaweed.
Dr. Ikeda worked for months, conducting chemical analyses which involved boiling kombu seaweed to a tar-like substance and evaporating the liquids to isolate specific compounds in it. Dr. Ikeda, his disciples, and future scientists would continue refining this methodology for years. For the meantime however, he settled with calling it “umami” as a temporary name… ironically it would continue to stick around to this day, even as his initial discoveries about this “fifth taste” were finally empirically confirmed in recent decades.
What took so long to discover the fifth flavor?
The so-called four basic flavors had existed in Western cuisine ever since the Ancient Greeks. Over time, as modern science developed, we had discovered the exact neurotransmitters which could detect these basic tastes on our tongues.
The peculiarity of umami as a flavor however is that it was only in the 21st century when this taste had been empirically confirmed as a basic taste distinct from the existing four categories that had been accepted by science. Science during the time of Dr. Kikunae Ikeda simply wasn’t advanced enough to find what exactly caused the unique taste of umami.
It was only in 2000 when molecular biologists at the University of Miami published a groundbreaking paper which discovered unique taste receptors for umami on the tongues of mice. The paper demonstrated how the presence of a compound known as glutamate sent an electric signal to the brain to generate the sensation of umami.
Perhaps another reason why Western recognition of the umami taste took so long is because of how difficult it is to demonstrate the taste to foreigners who have different culinary traditions from the Japanese. Westerners can associate sweetness with sugar, saltiness with salt, sourness with lemons, and bitterness with coffee or beer… but how can foreigners possibly grasp umami as tasting like Dashi when many haven’t even had a taste of this dish to begin with?
Nonetheless, despite the doubts of Westerners of the existence of the flavor, Dr. Ikeda and his successors would turn the compounds discovered in their experiments with Dashi in the form of Ajinomoto seasoning, the most popular type of umami seasoning which is used in both Asian and Western cooking today.
When Dr. Ikeda continued to experiment with Dashi, he discovered glutamic acid as being a powerful carrier of this umami taste. He would go on to start a company known as Ajinomoto, where they took the lessons of his experiments and mass produced umami seasoning by fermenting corn to produce glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid that is found in nearly all foods, and even in our own body serving various functions.
Ajinomoto’s main innovation was mixing this glutamic acid with sodium to produce Monosodium Glutamate, more popularly known as MSG. Chemically, it’s similar to salt and looks like a white crystalline powder. The Japanese military would be one of the first to adopt this seasoning in their dishes as they used it to boost troops’ morale during World War II.
MSG seasoning would become widespread in the United States after World War II when major players in industry and food science gathered for a convention and noticed the innovations in food flavoring happening in Japan.
Scandals and Controversy?
Today however, the MSG seasoning is one mired with controversy. An article published in the 1960s from a doctor talked about “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” wherein he explained how he supposedly experienced symptoms similar to an allergic reaction after eating a Chinese restaurant. Other publications would soon follow, and one particular study involved injecting laboratory mice with MSG, which resulted in brain lesions and neurological problems.
These studies were taken at first as a total indictment of MSG ever being safe for use in cooking. But recent scientific research has proven the problematic methodologies utilized in these studies, as well as the general paranoia with which Westerners had approached the new MSG seasoning.
Is MSG healthy then? Studies so far have had mixed findings. Some findings suggested that MSG reduces calorie intake, while some suggest that it actually increases it. Some link it to weight gain, but so far the results have been weak and inconsistent.
Just as with all things, MSG is best taken in moderation. Its exact health benefits remain hotly debated today, but it is safe to say that much of the initial allegations against it as being a “deadly excitotoxin” are mostly based on unsound science with no hard evidence.
Healthy foods with strong umami flavor
So far we have talked about the complex and sometimes controversial history of MSG. What foods exactly can we associate with this “fifth flavor” today? Is it purely a taste found in Asian dishes, or are there some unsuspecting Western foods that pack hidden umami flavor within?
The most popular food associated with umami by far is seaweed, particularly kombu seaweed which was the original source of Dr. Kikunae Ikeda’s findings which led to the development of MSG. Because of their high glutamate content, they’re a great source of umami flavor that is often used to add depth to broths and sauces in Japanese cuisine.
Another popular food which packs a load of umami is soy foods. Soybeans have a decent amount of glutamate content, but processing and fermenting has been found to raise their total glutamate content. It’s no surprise that things like soy sauce, tofu, and miso are so popular in Asian food. Perhaps the secret ingredient was no other than soy’s hidden umami flavors.
Perhaps most surprisingly, aged cheeses have also been found to be high in the umami compound glutamate! The cheeses that are aged longest such as Italian parmesan (which is usually aged from 24-30 months) typically pack the most umami taste. Do you ever wonder why parmesan is able to turn an unsuspecting pasta dish to a truly savory experience? That’s umami in action!
After Meeting Umami
Whether you’re worried about its health effects or not, umami is undoubtedly embedded even in some of the most unsuspecting foods in your everyday supermarket. The controversial flavor which started in a tiny laboratory in Japan is now an international sensation. For better or worse, umami has changed the world of food, and is here to stay for years to come.