The French have the browned-in-butter mix of onions, carrots, and celery called mirepoix; the Italians sauté the vegetables in olive oil and call it soffritto; and the Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin Americans sauté onions, garlic, and tomato and call it sofrito. These and variations are the basis of great world cuisines because they create the flavor sensation called umami.
What’s umami? It’s that tantalizing fifth taste. You always knew about sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, and you may have heard the word umami but never known what it was. You just knew you loved a juicy barbecued hamburger with grilled onions, and absolutely couldn’t resist that last delectable bit of chicken stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan. Yum, right?
In fact, while calling the concept by name is relatively new to us, it was a hundred years ago that a Japanese scientist named that hard to define taste as umami (oo-MAH-mee) and in Japanese, it actually translates to “deliciousness” or, simply “yum.”
It’s the taste you find in meats, fish, and fowl, in cheese, in beer, in green tea, soy sauce, truffles, corn, and winter squash, and in nuts like almonds and walnuts. Sometimes it’s earthy, sometimes it’s reminiscent of the sea, and without even being aware of it, we’ve been devising recipes with umami flavors forever because they taste so good.
In the American south, Cajun and Creole cuisines use what they call the holy trinity of onions, celery, and bell peppers as the basis for sauces and stews. No one thought “we’ve got to come up with an umami taste,” but that’s what they came up with anyway. The tomatoes, onion, and chili peppers in West African dishes, the seaweed in Japanese dashi, the dried bonito in Sri Lankan soup, the curries of India… they’re all umami.
Mediterranean cuisines are especially filled with the taste of umami. Caesar salad with garlic, anchovies and Parmesan cheese, hummus, roasted eggplant, sundried tomatoes, spanakopita, Feta cheese, ratatouille, and deliciously charred lamb kebobs.
Other international recipes rich with umami that you can try in your kitchen are French onion soup, sizzling garlic shrimp, pumpkin curry soup, Swedish gravlax with crème fraiche, dill and capers, and a decadent truffle cheese and portabella caprese pizza.
What’s interesting is that even foods that have their own umami have the quotient increased by cooking them with other umami-rich ingredients. A basic tomato sauce has umami, but its effect is doubled if the sauce is cooked with mushrooms. In the same way, the very process of roasting meats and vegetables enhances their umami.
What Exactly Is Umami?
In scientific terms, umami is a natural amino acid and building block of protein called glutamate. For a long time it was debated whether umami was a fundamental food taste. The issue was laid to rest when scientists discovered receptors on the tongue with no other purpose than to recognize the presence of glutamate, the same as there are receptors for the other four tastes. Many scientists believe that humans crave umami because it indicates the presence of protein, the same way we respond to salt because it contains minerals our bodies need.
In 1907, when chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda found that foods with that savory deliciousness he called umami had in common high levels of glutamate, he created a product that made it simple to add the flavoring to food that didn’t have it naturally, the same way we might add sugar to make things sweet. He called the product monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
Beginning in the ‘50s or so, MSG was routinely added to dishes in Chinese restaurants until people began saying it gave them headaches. Although no links to the headaches has been proven, there are now products being marketed that are to MSG what artificial ingredients are to sugar, and it is still is added to a lot of fast food and things you find in the grocery store like soup, chips, and macaroni and cheese because it enhances the flavor without adding salt.
Without adding anything extra, though, and with what we now know about cooking and combining flavors, many of the foods we enjoy are loaded naturally with that umami tastiness. Even the most humble homemade chicken soup is a golden bowl of umami. No wonder it makes us feel better!