Umami… Now there’s one mysterious word that, in just three syllables, seems to open up a whole world of adventure. Fortunately, there’s no need to take a train, plane, or automobile to unlock its secrets. Umami actually offers a sensory voyage of discovery, and more specifically into the realm of taste. Pack your bags and come with us to find out more about this savory flavor that has everyone talking.
Taste and flavors
The particularity of taste is that it is intimately linked to our other senses. When we eat or drink something, the sensation obtained via the palate combines with how we see, smell, and feel it. Our sense of taste enables us to perceive five different flavors: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness… and umami.
There’s a reason we mentioned umami last. This fifth flavor was only identified in the early 20th century, in 1908, by a Japanese chemist called Kikunae Ikeda. So the story goes, the scientist was enjoying a typical Japanese broth known as dashi. All of a sudden, his taste buds picked up on a completely unique, new flavor. Both overwhelmed by his discovery and struck by the enjoyment of the experience, he decided to name it “umami.” This term is a portmanteau of the Japanese words umai (“delicious”) and mi (“taste”). He attributed the umami to konbu, a type of savory kelp eaten in certain Asian countries and used in his broth. Inspired, he decided to pursue the study of this new flavor.
The advent of umami
Many other scientists went on to study the new find. They observed that umami was created by a specific amino acid – glutamate – a molecule found in both animal- and plant-based proteins. Umami is harder to identify than saltiness, sweetness, sourness, and bitterness. However, it comes into its own after culinary transformations such as fermentation, drying, ripening, or simply slow-cooking. A truly impressive feat of subtlety and delicacy!
Westerners took far longer than Professor Ikeda to add the fifth flavor to their gustatory list. But now they seem to be hooked! Umami is especially popular in France, where the leading chefs are quick to showcase it in their dishes.
What about tea?
You may be surprised to know that green tea is particularly umami. This is because green teas are the least oxidized and therefore naturally contain the most glutamates. If you are looking for an umami experience, we recommend a cup of sencha or matcha to delight your taste buds. You’re sure to recognized the well-rounded, deep flavor that may well bring back a few memories… As incredible as it may seem, glutamate is one of the main amino acids found in maternal milk!
Are you a cooking whizz, a shrewd foodie, or a lover of delicate tastes? If so, then umami offers a whole world of new flavor just waiting to be discovered!