What is umami?

Our sensation of taste can been divided into five basic “components”: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and savoriness (aka umami).
The first four are pretty well understood and we can easily tell when we’re tasting them. Umami is a bit different.

Interestingly, although foods high in umami have been used for thousands of years, it was only relatively recently that it was pinpointed. In 1908, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda found that the seaweed kombu that the Japanese have always used for soup stocks, was especially high in monosodium glutamate. You may know it by its acronym: MSG. It wasn’t sweet, sour, salty, or bitter. It was savory, and he named it umami (which roughly translates to “delicious” in Japanese).

Image result for kombu
Kombu


Glutamic acid (MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acids) isn’t just found in kombu though. Since 1908, umami was also found in many other foods like meat, cheese, mushrooms, etc. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2001 that scientists proved that the tongue contains receptors for umami. Once again, it seems the Japanese were well ahead of their time.

In future editions we will explore how to introduce more umami flavor into your food.