Umami, the fifth taste

UMAMI is a Japanese word that means ‘tasty’. Until the 19th century, the basic flavors identified in human taste were sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Science established that the receptors for sweet tastes were located on the tip of the tongue; those of acid tastes, on the sides of the tongue and on the walls of the mouth; those of the bitter ones, at the end of the tongue and in the uvula (vulgarly called ‘bell’) and the salty ones in the center of the tongue.

The word umami was coined by Professor Kikunae Ikeda and it comes from the combination of the terms umai ‘delicious’ and mi ‘taste’. The Japanese characters referring to umami are used in a more general sense, when a particular food is delicious.



The glutamate It has a long history in the kitchen. Fermented fish sauces (garo), rich in glutamate, were already used in ancient Rome. At the end of the 19th century, chef Auguste Escoffier (considered one of the most important chefs in France), who opened what was considered the most glamorous, expensive and revolutionary restaurant in Paris, created meals that combined umami flavors with sweet flavors. , acid, bitter and salty. However, he did not know the chemistry behind this particular characteristic.

The umami taste was not properly identified until 1908 when scientist Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, discovered that glutamate was responsible for the deliciousness of kombu seaweed broth. He noted that the taste of kombu fish stock (dashi) was distinct from sweet, sour, bitter, and salty flavors, and he called it “umami.” Years later, in 1913, a disciple of Professor Ikeda, Shintaro Kodama, found that dried bonito flakes contained another umami substance. It was the IMP ribonucleotide. Then, in 1957, Akira Kuninaka He noticed that the GMP ribonucleotide present in shiitake mushrooms also conferred the umami taste. One of Kuninaka’s most important discoveries was the synergistic effect between ribonucleotides and glutamate. When foods rich in glutamate are combined with ingredients containing ribonucleotides, the resulting flavor intensity is greater than the sum of both ingredients.

This umami synergy explains the rationale for several classic food combinations, starting with dashi that the Japanese prepare with kombu seaweed and dried bonito shavings, followed by other dishes: chicken soup to which the Chinese add Chinese onions and cabbage, as well as in the cock-a-leekie soup of Scotland, and the Italian ones that combine Parmesan cheese with tomato sauce and mushrooms.

The umami taste it is a subtle flavor but with a prolonged taste and difficult to describe. It induces salivation and a velvety sensation on the tongue that stimulates the throat, palate and back of the mouth. By itself, umami is not tasty, but it enhances the palatability of many foods, especially in the presence of complementary aromas. But like other basic flavors – except for sucrose – umami is pleasant only within a relatively narrow range of concentration. The optimal umami taste also depends on the amount of salt. At the same time, low-salt foods can taste satisfying with the right amount of umami. In fact, Roinien showed that the ratings for liking, flavor intensity, and ideal amount of salt for low-salt soups were higher when the soup contained umami; while low-salt, umami-free soups were less palatable. So cooking with ingredients rich in umami also allows reduce the amount of salt that would normally be used to enhance the flavor of food. Some groups of people, such as older adults, may benefit more from umami taste because their sense of taste and sensitivity to aromas may be diminished by age and medications. Loss of the sense of taste and smell can contribute to poor nutritional status, which increases the risk of disease.

Umami-rich foods

It is said of the foods that we can consume on a daily basis that they are rich in umami, although there are no real references in this regard. Naturally occurring glutamate is found in meats and vegetables, while inosinate comes primarily from meats and guanylate from vegetables. Therefore, the umami taste is a common characteristic of foods that contain high levels of L-glutamate, IMP and GMPmainly fish, shellfish, cured meat, edible mushrooms, vegetables (for example, tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, etc.) or green tea, and in fermented and aged products (for example, cheeses, shrimp pastes, soy sauce , etc.).

Humans first encounter with umami taste is by tasting breast milk. It contains almost as much umami flavor as the broths. In the case of broths, the glutamate content can vary. For example, Japanese dashi has a very sharp umami taste sensation because it does not contain meat. In dashi, L-glutamate comes from kombu seaweed and inosinate from dried bonito flakes or dried small sardines. In contrast, Western or Chinese broths and consommés offer a more complex flavor due to a broader mix of amino acids from bones, meats and vegetables. Iberian ham also has an umami flavor.

How to add umami to your cooking

Use umami-rich ingredients. Some foods naturally contain a lot of umami. a) Use fermented foods.b) Use cured meats.c) Use aged cheeses.d) Use umami-rich seasonings.e) Use pure umami, also known as MSG, which is found in superstores.

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