Understanding umami

Infuriatingly intangible, difficult to define and supremely savoury – what exactly is ‘umami’? Zoë Perrett gets to grips with this tricky taste…

Ever get that warm glow of ultra-satisfaction from a particularly flavoursome titbit or a spoonful of deeply-savoury gravy? Umami. Ever had cause to take pause after biting into a rich, ripe tomato? Umami. Ever slicked Marmite onto morning toast, splashed soy into a stir-fry, or sprinkled Parmesan on pasta? Umami, umami, umami.

But what on earth does the word actually refer to? It’s a tricky question, and there are many answers, depending on who you ask. Its literal translation from the Japanese is beautifully beguiling: ‘savoury deliciousness’.

You might not know that umami is present, but its absence can leave you feeling deprived. It has the power to bring wishy-washy flavours sharply into focus and turn flat, dull dishes three-dimensional and technicolour.

Here comes the science bit…

Although we all experience its effect in our daily dining, umami didn’t officially arrive on the food science scene until 1908, and its intricacies remain rather foggy for all but the most scientifically-minded foodies.

Professor Kikunae Ikeda was the man who coined the term ‘umami’ to describe a taste sensation he established as unique from the four known basic tastes at the time: salty, sweet, sour and bitter. In this instance, it came from the amino acid glutamate; further Japanese research also attributed its character to fellow aminos, inosinate and guanylate.

So the world knew umami existed, but it wasn’t until 2002 that dedicated taste bud receptors were discovered on the tongue. Umami’s persistent, lingering character is perceived all over the tongue, literally making the mouth water. As humans, we’re born loving it; both amniotic fluid and breast milk are glutamate-rich.

Umami features in food the world over, but it is especially prevalent in Asian cuisines where many common ingredients such as MSG – the much-maligned ‘universal taste enhancer’ – fish, seaweed, miso, dried mushrooms and soy are rich in the three key amino acids. It may also be one of the reasons for our abiding love affair with Japanese, Korean and Chinese food.

Helpful for health?

If you’re eschewing fat in a bid to get your silhouette slimmer, amp up the umami to make a dish feel full-bodied. It’s also known to trigger a feeling of satiety in the brain, so those who seek out the sensation may well feel full on less food and fewer calories.

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Easy ways to add umami – What to buy and how to use it

  • Parmesan: Grate and bake mounds into crisp wafers, and use rinds in soups and stocks
  • Dried mushrooms: Rehydrate to top pizzas and use the
    liquid in the dough
  • Olives: Pulse into a tapenade and spread under a whole chicken’s skin before roasting
  • Onions: Caramelise and use as the base of a gravy with beef stock and Madeira.
  • Celery salt: Use as a dip for asparagus spears
  • Miso: Add a small spoonful of mellow red or brown miso paste to chocolate cake mix
  • Soy sauce: Splash into home-made caramel or roast nuts with soy and honey
  • Anchovies: Stuff fillets and fresh rosemary into slashes in a leg of lamb and bake
  • Tomato purée: Knead into bread dough or enrich home-made tomato soup
  • Kombu seaweed: Slice and simmer in soup or dry-roast and then crumble as a condiment

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