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Umami – The Fifth Taste

by jenny sansouci on December 1, 2009

What is Umami?

I was able to catch an episode of The Next Iron Chef while I was at my parents house for Thanksgiving. The focus of the episode was cooking foods rich in “umami.”  I had never heard of this before, and Iron Chef Morimoto was the judge – so I was very intrigued.

Umami was described on the show as the taste of  “deliciousness.” I learned that umami is a word taken from the Japanese language meaning “tasty” that is used to describe the fifth taste. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter…and umami.

What exactly does “umami” taste like?

Umami has been described as savory, brothy, rich, and just plain “yummy”. According to the Umami Information Center, “most people don’t recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious.”

Who discovered umami?

In 1908, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda was eating seaweed soup and identified a taste that wasn’t one of the 4 “known” tastes.  He investigated, and discovered that the umami flavor comes from glutamic acid, a naturally-occuring amino acid found in meat, fish, cheese, and luckily — some vegetables too! You can check out this page to see all the naturally umami rich foods, and even click on each food to see their umami level.

It was the detection of glutamic acid being responsible for umami that led to the mass production of MSG, or monosodium glutamate, as a flavor enhancer.  MSG is a salt that comes from glutamic acid. You don’t need to ingest MSG or any other additives to taste umami, though. Fortunately, there are many natural ways to taste the savory umami flavor.

Here’s the list of the most naturally umami-rich vegetables:

  • Tomatoes
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Enokitake mushrooms
  • Truffles
  • Soy beans
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Carrots

It turns out that parmesan cheese and green tea are also high in umami. Yum!

As shown on The Next Iron Chef, umami can be enhanced simply by adding soy sauce to your meal. The episode was sponsored by Kikkoman – and I was surprised to learn that their website is all about umami! Check out their wide range of sauces to help you achieve the fifth taste in your cooking.

And check out Cooking With Umami for lots of great recipe ideas!


*picture from Kikkoman.

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