What Is Umami?

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Tamar Genger MA, RD
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A few months ago I was flipping through the channels of the radio trying to find something decent to listen to, while my 7 year old was complaining about every station I landed on.  Sounds familiar?  I happened to stop for a moment on NPR where this woman was talking about her new book on taste.  I was interested, and patiently waited for my son to tell me to switch it, which usually takes about 8 seconds.  When he didn’t say a word, I realized that everyone wants to learn about taste.  How we taste what we taste and how all our five senses play a role in the enjoyment of our food.

We happened to hear them talk about Umami, a somewhat recent buzz word that many of us are still learning about.  Umami was actually only officially recognized as a term to describe taste back in 1985. It is now widely accepted as the fifth basic taste along with sweet, sour, bitter and salt.  Umami comes from the Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste” and is the taste of glutamate.  It is described as a sensation of meatiness, brothineess or savoriness.  Have you ever eaten a delicious food, but not been able to describe what was so good about it?  That flavor was umami.

Umami is something that we are striving to add to our food because it is present in so many of the foods we crave.  It is that special fifth taste that transforms food into a full sensory experience.

Foods that are high in umami include:

  • Parmesan Cheese
  • Steak
  • Fermented fish sauce
  • Kombu seaweed
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Chinese Cabbage
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Green tea

Many high umami foods have been used for years in classic dishes.  Later, it was discovered that many traditional foods paired several umami foods together to create an amplified umami taste, which is why they were so tasty.  An example from Italy would be Parmesan cheese with tomato sauce and mushrooms.    There are many ways to add umami to food, one great way is to use Marmite.  Yosef Silver from ThisAmericanBit enlightened us about the wonders of Marmite and shared one of his favorite recipes.  Give it a try and let us know if you can taste the Umami.

Umami is just one very small part of experiencing taste.  The book Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good is another great source to help us appreciate every food we eat, using all five senses.