Field NotesWhat is Umami?Illustration：Stina Löfgren
Translation : Hidetaka Furuya (Northern Projects)
“Umami” is one of the most important keywords when talking about Japanese food culture. This word is now recognized around the world, but many people may still have trouble understanding what umami really means.
We got the chance to speak with Dr. Yoshimi Osawa, a leading expert on the umami taste, and we asked her to tell us more about this savory flavor.
Umami was a Japanese discovery
For many years, it was said that taste could be categorized into four basic flavors: amami (sweetness), sanmi (sourness), shiomi (saltiness), and nigami (bitterness). But in 1908, this categorization underwent a huge change.
Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, a distinguished Japanese chemist, was studying in Germany back then.
He was immersing himself in Western food culture and ingredients, but also felt a sense of sadness about what he perceived to be a poor Japanese diet. He often wondered, “If only everyday Japanese dishes could be improved.” After returning to Japan, he ate some yu-dofu (boiled tofu in kombu dashi). He noticed that there was something he couldn’t describe in kombu dashi, something that couldn’t be explained by the four flavor categories mentioned above.
In 1908, Dr. Ikeda discovered that monosodium glutamate (which can be found in kombu) was the secret behind this great flavor. He named the ingredient “umami”. Actually, monosodium glutamate itself had already been identified by German chemist Karl Heinrich Ritthausen in 1866. However, Ritthausen didn’t pick up on the existence of the umami taste and just described this substance as “peculiarly insipid”. The fact that Dr. Ikeda was born in Kyoto and was familiar with Japanese dashi culture may have contributed to the discovery of the “fifth taste”.
What does umami taste like?
Unlike the other basic flavors, umami is difficult to clearly describe. However, if you are asked what umami tastes like, you can start by experimenting with dried tomatoes. Dried tomatoes contain a lot of monosodium glutamate, so you can taste the umami flavor easily. Put a dried tomato into your mouth and bite on it continuously for a few minutes. After you have bitten it around 20 to 30 times, its unique sweet and sour flavor will disappear. You will then start tasting the remaining flavor. That’s umami.
What is the difference between Japanese dashi and broth from other countries?
When you think of the umami flavor, you may think of Japanese dishes or of dashi in particular. However, dashi culture isn’t limited to Japan. You find bouillon and fondue in France, “tan” (soup stock made from chicken or pork) in China, and beef bone broth in South Korea. But these foods are different from Japanese dashi. They are made with meat, and the umami flavor is mixed with fat. With Japanese dashi, you can enjoy a pure umami flavor extracted from kombu, katsuo-bushi or shiitake mushrooms, and it contains little fat. When you cook a dish with simple flavors, such as miso soup or ohitashi (boiled green vegetables in dashi), you can really appreciate the taste of dashi itself.
Traditional food products and umami
Many food products around the world contain umami. For example, fermented or aged food products. Many of these exist as traditional national foods, such as marmite in the UK; parmesan cheese, dried tomato, and raw ham in Europe; nam pla in Thailand; miso and soy sauce in Japan. You can find umami products in many parts of the world.
Did you know that dashi tastes so much better when you blend different kinds of umami flavor together?
There are many different kinds of umami flavor, but the main ones that should be remembered are: glutamate in kombu, inosinate in katsuo-bushi, and guanylate in dried shiitake mushrooms. Glutamate is an amino acid; inosinate and guanylate are both nucleic acids. When an amino acid and a nucleic acid are combined, that generates a synergistic effect on the umami taste. This fact has now been scientifically proven, but the world recipes that enable this synergistic effect have been around for a long period of time. Our ancestors experimented repeatedly to create our food culture of blending different umami flavors. It was only around a hundred years ago that we scientifically identified the secret to this magical taste.
Katsuo-dashi becomes a pleasant flavor once you get used to it.
Japanese dashi is distinct in its aroma as well as its taste. Katsuo-dashi has a particularly characteristic aroma. Japanese people love it, but many Western people find it too fishy for their liking. Your sense of smell is based on where you were born and raised. Many Westerners don’t find the aroma of katsuo-dashi pleasant simply because they are not used to it. Some Japanese people may not like the aroma of cheese, but most French people love it. Aroma is very important in taste. Even if you don’t enjoy katsuo-dashi at first, pinch your nose and put some into your mouth. You will be surprised to discover just how tasty it is.