I remember when I was nine and my elementary school science teacher told us about the range of basic tastes the tongue could detect: sweet, salty, sour, bitter. For the next few days, I went around announcing the taste of every food I put in my mouth, much to the annoyance of my family. Banana—sweet; chips—salty; lemon—sour; kale—bitter (ew). But then I came across the difficult ones. What about mum’s braised shiitake mushrooms with dark soy sauce? I pronounced them salty and sweet—but there was something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
My mother had a Chinese word for it: 鮮味, which literally translates to ‘fresh taste,’ though it’s more commonly understood as ‘delicious taste.’ That did nothing to describe the odd savory sensation I was experiencing, because a lot of things were delicious, including chocolate chip cookies, but this was something else. When studies confirmed that our tongues contain receptors for a fifth taste, it was a triumphant moment. There was now a name for that moreish taste I was trying so hard to define—umami.
Umami is a term coined by a chemist from Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) in the 20th century. The Japanese had long been making dashi with kombu (kelp, a kind of seaweed), using it as the flavor base in all manner of Japanese cuisine. If you’ve ever had a slurp of the addictive broth in ramen soup, you’ve likely experienced the miracle of dashi. Dr. Kikunae Ikeda recognized this and sought to pinpoint the active ingredient in kombu that gave it its ‘deliciousness.’ He succeeded in isolating glutamate, an amino acid, as the source of this savory magic—but he didn’t stop there. Going on to create and produce the notorious flavor enhancer MSG in industrial quantities, Dr Ikeda became the alleged villain behind the so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.
So how exactly does umami work? Dr Ikeda looked at how MSG excites the taste buds, but his original paper wasn’t conclusive. More work has been done since then and we now know that glutamate is present in lots of foods, and in much higher levels in certain foods: cheese, ripe tomatoes, asparagus, cured meats, fermented sauces (like fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce) and of course the mushrooms and soy sauce that had confused the nine-year-old me. Aging, curing and microbial fermentation are all processes that unlock these glutamates in food to further intensify the umami flavor, explaining why something as simple as shaving Parmesan over a boring plate of pasta immediately creates fireworks in our mouths.
The discovery, of course, did a lot more than just give the taste a name; what it also presented for chefs was the opportunity to create even tastier food. Adam Fleischman made use of the flavor to deliver a burger that strikes your taste buds with a heavy glutamate punch, leading to the success of the famous Umami Burger restaurant chain in the US. Besides using umami-rich ingredients like ketchup, shiitake mushrooms and Parmesan, Fleischman finishes his creation with a Master Sauce—a concoction of the most glutamate-rich foods you can find, including soy sauce, Marmite and concentrated dashi.
Not that umami is just for professional chefs. While I don’t have much time or patience to cook, I always look for ways I can add a hit of umami to my dishes to create something that’s more than just edible. And by that I don’t just mean the tiny packs of ‘special salt’ that Dr Ikeda created…
Soy sauce is a must-have in my pantry. I drizzle it (along with Chinese black vinegar and chili oil) over blanched noodles, or add a splash of that wonderful dark liquid magic into a quick weeknight stir-fry. I also make sure to have a tube of concentrated tomato paste on hand. I squeeze a generous amount into the pan, frying it in olive oil (often with onions and garlic) to create a base for soups and sauces. There are also the various tubs of miso I collect in the fridge—great for making rich savory dressings and instant broths for noodles. And, of course, I make sure I never run out of dried anchovies or various types of seaweed and cheese.
The list is never-ending, and in fact, it’s forever growing. It’s been 15 years since that mini science project I started in my mother’s kitchen. Today I still make mental notes of ingredients that leave my taste buds wanting more, silently and gleefully proclaiming ‘umami!’ to myself.
Have you got any good tips for adding umami to your food? Share them on Twitter with #momentumtravel!