Umami, Part I: An In Depth Look at Umami & Its Role in the Culinary Arts

by Jane Greer
CulinaryEd Columnist
May 19, 2011

Umami = Great Taste

For thousands of years, scientific wisdom had it that the human tongue can detect four main "tastes": sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. In 1996, scientists proved that a fifth taste, called umami (pronounced oo-MA-mee), is also detectable by human taste receptors.

Umami is usually associated with high-protein foods such as meat, but is also present in seafood, many vegetables, wine, and even green tea. Worldwide understanding of umami is new, but food with umami has been around forever.

Chef Escoffier's Veal Stock: Full of Umami

Many culinary students know that in the 1880s, world-famous French chef Auguste Escoffier revolutionized the culinary world by creating veal stock (veal bones, water, wine, and seasonings, intensified by reduction). The stock had a deep, rich flavor unlike anything Parisians had ever tasted. This flavor was umami. <

How Umami Got Its Name

Early in the 20th century, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda ate a bowl of soup containing seaweed and noticed that its deliciousness could not be called sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. Ikeda called the taste umami, Japanese for "delicious," conducted experiments, and discovered that the flavor was the result of a high concentration of glutamate in the seaweed. He went on to develop crystallized monosodium glutamate, which--as MSG--is still a popular flavor enhancer.

Umami Taste Receptors Help Us Survive

In 1996, American researchers discovered that the human tongue has taste receptor cells created especially to detect umami. Scientists believe that umami is what tells humans to eat and enjoy protein, which is necessary for survival.

So for chefs, culinary students, and foodies, the good news is that human beings are designed to love pizza loaded with umami-rich foods--aged cheese, cured meats, tomatoes, and mushrooms. It's beautiful thing!

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
National Public Radio
Umami Information Center
Wall Street Journal

About the Author

Jane Greer is a freelance writer and editor and is also brave enough to teach English grammar at a community college.
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