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umami

noun [uncountable]

a pleasant savoury taste found in foods such as meat, cheese and mushrooms

'At first glance, it doesn't look like the sort of thing that could transform every cook's food into Michelin-starred cuisine … But, in fact, it is what is described as umami paste … And just a squirt or two in your sauce, or on your steak, can transform an average dinner-party dish into something spectacular.'

Daily Mail 11th February 2010

If you're fed up with the same old meat and two veg or pasta and tomato sauce, and the weekly run of familiar meals holds no excitement for you, then fear not, help may be at hand. Enter umami – a new flavour sensation which has the potential to rescue your tastebuds from the effects of culinary drudgery.

umami is often described as the 'fifth taste' because it complements the conventional taste categories that the human tongue is said to detect: sweet, sour, salty and bitter

Umami is a pleasant savoury taste produced by glutamate and ribonucleotides, chemicals which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish and dairy products. Umami is subtle and not generally identified by people when they encounter it, but blends well with other tastes to intensify and enhance flavours. It therefore plays an important role in making food taste delicious. If it helps to visualize, a familiar example of the umami taste in action is parmesan cheese, maybe not as appetising as some cheeses when eaten on its own, but creating a delicious taste sensation when sprinkled on a dish of steaming spaghetti bolognese.

Umami is often described as the 'fifth taste' because it complements the conventional taste categories that the human tongue is said to detect: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It ties in with the increasingly popular belief that taste is more complicated than originally perceived, relating to a combination of sensations such as the feel and sound of food when chewing, its smell, and even the emotional circumstances when eating.

Though umami can be experienced by simply combining ingredients that work well together – such as combinations of meat, tomatoes, garlic and cheese – hey, it's the 21st century, and so we can buy the 'convenience' version! In February 2010, Waitrose became the first British supermarket to sell tubes of the aptly and transparently named 'Taste No 5'. The creation of chef and food writer Laura Santtini, Taste No 5 is a paste made from umami-rich foods such as tomatoes, parmesan cheese, anchovies, garlic and porcini mushrooms. It claims to act as a 'flavour bomb' when added to any savoury dish.

Background to the identification of the umami taste from umami foods

The term umami was coined by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda when he first identified the concept in 1908. Ikeda analysed the active ingredients in kelp (seaweed) stock, an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine, discovering that the delicious taste was linked to glutamate. He found that this taste was also present in other savoury foods, including those used in Western cuisine, like tomatoes, cheese and meat. In 1912, addressing an international congress in applied chemistry in Washington, Ikeda stated that:

'Those who pay careful attention to their tastebuds will discover in the complex flavour of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter …'

However it wasn't until the 1980s that, following a series of scientific studies, the umami taste was officially recognized as a legitimate fifth taste.

Opinions vary as to the precise translation of the word umami, but the best approximation I've been able to find is something like 'savoury deliciousness'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 2nd March 2010.

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