Sweet, sour, salty and bitter – these are the four tastes that are generally known. However, this list is missing the fifth, which is called “umami”.
The Japanese chemist, Professor Kikunae Ikeda, discovered the fifth flavor in 1908.
In Asian cuisine, it is common to prepare dishes with broth instead of fat. In an experiment in which the professor wanted to find out the composition of the traditional Japanese dashi broth, he made an interesting discovery: Although the broth didn’t taste salty, bitter or sour, it still tasted good. He took this as an opportunity to define a new flavor: “Umami”
The word “umami” combines the Japanese adjectives “umai”, which is translated as “delicious” or “hearty”, with the word “mi” meaning “essence”. Since then, umami has conquered not only the culinary but also the scientific world.
We experience the fifth taste of umami every day with fish, meat, tomatoes, cheese and soy sauce – even if we are not consciously aware of it. Unknown to many of us, umami balances the flavor components while enhancing the palatability of many foods.
Although umami was only discovered by science not long ago as a fifth taste, we come as babies in contact with her, because breast milk contains around 20 times more umami than cow’s milk (Source: Ninomiya, K. Food Rev. Int., 14, pp. 177-211, 1998).
Umami alone has none certain taste, but it rounds off the aroma of many dishes. With the right spices, umami can turn dishes from all over the world into a very special taste experience.
In the past, umami was often associated with Asian cuisine – probably because it was discovered in Japan and because it has an Asian name has. But today we know that umami is not an Asian phenomenon: the hearty and full-bodied taste can be found in many international dishes and foods. These include tomatoes, parmesan and mushrooms.
Umami also plays an important role in a salt-reduced diet: dishes with umami have an intense taste, which is why adding more salt is usually no longer necessary. Kikkoman Soy Sauce is a great umami seasoning and natural salt alternative.
Parmesan: Europeans are familiar with the umami of parmesan. The hard cheese takes more than two years to mature and therefore contains high levels of glutamates that can even be seen with the naked eye. These are the small white crystals that develop during the ripening period and give the cheese its unique taste.
Tomatoes: Did you know that umami is responsible for the intense flavor of tomatoes? And did you know that tomatoes were only recently established as a popular food? When the Europeans conquered Central and South America, they discovered the red fruit. Since they were initially skeptical, they brought it back to Europe as an ornamental plant. It was only the Italians who found out that the tomato was edible and have since used it in numerous starters and main courses, giving them that special umami factor.
Soy sauce: Most people in Asia, umami is found in fermented condiments. Whether with rice, vegetables or fish – these sauces are an indispensable part of Asian cuisine. They are so rich in umami that they give food a balanced flavor and add flavor to all types of dishes. Kikkoman Soy Sauce also has that umami taste. In the natural brewing process, the proteins are broken down so that natural glutamate is released – which gives the soy sauce its high umami content.