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Understanding the Mysterious Fifth Taste: Umami

Hot & Cool Trends

By Cari Martens

You may have heard about the ‘fifth flavor.’ The one that comes after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It’s a concept that originated in Japan and it’s called ‘umami.’ The term is derived from the Japanese word for ‘delicious,’ but the meaning of umami is more technical—and more mystical.

A umami summit was held in Piccadilly, London, recently. The objectives of the conference were to showcase dashi, the stock that is central to Japanese cuisine; to discuss umami in cooking; and to explain how dashi and umami are used to create low-fat dishes. The summit also served to launch a new book, “Dashi and Umami,” by Nobu Matsuhisa, Pascal Barbot, and Kiyomi Mikuni, to be published in April.

Umami was first identified as a specific taste as far back as 1908, by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda. It’s described as the savory taste imparted by glutamate and five ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods, including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. That’s the more technical explanation. In layman’s terms, call it the yum factor.

Human breast milk is said to have high levels of umami, as is spaghetti Bolognese. Experts say one key characteristic of umami: it makes your mouth water. Speaking at the summit, Japanese chef Yoshihiro Murata said umami ‘stimulates the part of the brain that indicates pleasure. You want to eat more and more.’

Increase the umami. Lower the fat.

Another Japanese chef, Kunio Tokuoka, says that ‘by increasing umami in food you can reduce the amount of cream, butter and oil.’ Traditional Japanese ingredients used to increase umami are dried fish and kombu, a dried seaweed. Popular western ingredients high in umami include Parmesan cheese, tomatoes (especially sun-dried and ketchup), wild mushrooms, cured and smoked meats, cheese (particularly Parmesan and ripe blue cheese), fish and shellfish (especially anchovies and tuna), soy sauce, Oriental fish sauces, and sake.

So the next time you’re pouring on a heavy coating of Parmesan cheese on your pizza, or squeezing more ketchup onto your fries, you can impress your dining companions by explaining that you’re simply dialing up the umami level.

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