Tastes Like Umami

Tastes Like Umami

While it may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue yet, “umami” is steadily infiltrating more of our taste buds. And if you follow food trends, you see the name popping up everywhere. According to Forbes, umami is one of the biggest food trends of 2014, and if the fast-growing “Umami Burger” franchise is any indication, this is only the beginning. But what exactly is “umami” and why are we craving more of it?                                

In the 19th century, Parisian chef Auguste Escoffier became famous for dishes cooked with a veal jus that imparted a certain delectable flavor. He experimented in combining this with various other flavors without ever precisely identifying what that unique quality was. In 1908, University of Tokyo professor Kikunae Ikeda, having noticed a similarity between the taste of foods such as asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, meat, and kombu, or kelp, identified the amino acid glutamate as the substance that makes them all so tasty. Distinct from sweet, sour, bitter and salty, Ikeda named this taste umami, umai meaning "delicious" and mi "taste" in Japanese. Other staples of Japanese cooking, such as dried bonito flakes and shitake mushrooms, were successively identified as sources of another umami substance, ribonucleotide. In 1985, the first Umami International Symposium was held in Hawaii, and the term umami was officially scientifically recognized as the scientific term for the taste of both glutamates and nucleotides.                

We actually taste umami through special receptors for glutamate and nucleotides. For many Americans, these taste receptors got had a major workout via monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which became a staple in American processed foods as well as in Chinese restaurants before being stigmatized by a bad rap. That infamy has more recently been debunked. David Chang, chef-owner of the famous Momofuko eateries in New York’s East Village, ferments foods such as pistachios, lentils and chickpeas to distill a palette of umami flavors for the palate. He’s become a champion of monosodium glutamate, creating his own versions that he hopes will change the old public perception of MSG as a food baddy into a food yummy. 

Umami taste itself isn’t new of course, just the term. Many foods we eat are rich in umami: fish, shellfish, cured meats, mushrooms, vegetables tomatoes, spinach, celery, aged cheese, green tea and fermented products such as miso and marmite - not to mention Doritos. In Ancient Rome, anchovies were fermented to make a much used sauce called garum, and of course we don’t need to go to Rome to know the appeal of tomato sauce and parmesan cheese. More chefs everywhere are experimenting with umami and featuring it in their dishes. Umami snacks such as Nori chips are proliferating, and there are even Umami Chocolates.

In whatever form, we keep seeking out the incomparable flavor of umami while food producers are busy capitalizing on our craving for it. After all, umami by any other name tastes just as…well, umami. 

By Jorge Socarras