The secret taste of umami
January 16th, 2012
10:00 AM ET
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What do tomatoes, cheese and mackerel have in common?

They are all responsible for umami, the slightly mysterious fifth basic taste now counted alongside sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness. Umami is often likened to savoriness, but defining exactly what it tastes like can be tricky.

If you have two mini-tomatoes and chew them 30 times before swallowing you should feel a strange sensation that spreads in your cheeks. That, according to chef Kiyomi Mikuni, is the umami taste.

“Most people confuse the umami taste for the tastiness of the dish,” said Mikuni who has been promoting the umami taste for more than 20 years. “But they are two entirely different things. Umami is a basic taste, whereas the tastiness of the dish is an appreciation.”

Umami’s scientific existence was established by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Ikeda became curious about a particular taste contained in dashi, a dried kombu seaweed-based stock traditionally used in a variety of Japanese cuisine. He eventually discovered the amino acids in glutamate responsible for the umami taste, and also present in tomatoes.

For a long time, Western food researchers were skeptical about the discovery, claiming that the taste Ikeda was describing was a combination of the four other tastes. Only in 2000, when glutamate receptors were discovered on the tongue was the umami taste internationally accepted.

The reason non-Japanese experts did not identify the glutamate acid in, say, tomatoes, is because tomatoes also contain sweetness and sourness, making the identification of umami difficult. Later, other amino acids responsible for the umami taste were discovered, giving further proof of its importance.

It was later revealed that western ingredients such as mushrooms, cheese and meat also have the umami elements. It's no surprise that pizzas are so delicious – they are a festival of umami-rich amino acids. Researches have also revealed that umami is one of the first tastes a human being encounters, as breast milk is also rich in glutamates.

Mikuni revealed that there are at least two more candidates, including the tastes found in oil and calcium, which could enter the basic taste hall of fame.

“A big part of our sense of taste is still unknown to us,” Mikuni said with a grin. “We do not know its limits, and that's why cooking is so much fun.”

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Filed under: Asian • Feature • Food Science • Japan • Japan Eats • Japanese


soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Anthony Dina

    What's really cool is how umami really drives desire. If pizza is one of the perfect delivery mechanism, then what else? Steak and mushrooms with truffle oil? Beef broth with all the glory of French Onion soup? Does Tantalus have no boundaries?!

    January 18, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  2. Michael Vick

    If you don't know what umami is, just grab a few crystals of pure MSG (mono sodium glutemate) and taste it. You cannot get that taste from adding salt and sugar together, so you cannot describe it as sweet and salty. This is why a lot of canned soup and ramen noodles taste really good. If you take out MSG and add salt and sugar, it is not the same.

    January 17, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  3. TheDudeAbides

    "I taste dead food."
    -The Fifth Taste

    January 17, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  4. jdoe

    I don't quite buy into this. Yes, it may be scientifically real and there are physical receptors for it, but the fact is it not perceived consciously by most people. People don't have a sense of, "This is sweet, this is salty, this is bitter, this is sour, and this is umami". It just doesn't stand out on its own. Otherwise we would have had a name for it long ago.

    I'm sure they will find receptors for other yet-unnamed tastes. That won't change the human experience.

    January 17, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • Michael Vick

      All your senses can be trained. Certain Chinese dialects have as many as 9 tones. But they all sounded the same to untrained ears. Most Americans have a lot of difficulties with Mandarin Chinese which has only 4 tones. That doesn't mean that the tones don't exist.

      January 17, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • jojitop

      Well, I've always had a sense of it, but maybe that's because I grew up in Japan. Humans are categorical thinkers, so we tend not to think about things that do not have a name/category associated to them. If we have receptors for umami, then it IS being experienced; most people just don't think about it because it isn't recognized in their culture and language. (As some Anthropologists would say) It's just another example of how language can limit people's cognition. I guess the reason we didn't have name for this taste is because it isn't as obvious as the other four tastes.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  5. Phange

    It's important for people to understand that we possess very specific chemoreceptors for Umami. Sweet, salty, bitter, and sour were originally the only four with which we knew. The discovery of the fifth opens up an interesting discussion about the evolutionary "point" of Umami. Sweetness draws us high-carbohydrate foods for quick energy perks. Sour is favorable because it suggests a food that is generally sterile or antibacterial (high acid). Salty likewise. Bitter is evolutionarily an undesired taste as it suggests food that is either rotten or inundated with bacteria.

    So that leaves Umami, a relatively meaty savory flavor. One would think that would satisfy our desire for high-protein foods or high-vitamin foods. It is the only logical counter to our desire for sweetness.

    January 17, 2012 at 3:07 am |
    • Michael Vick

      I'm surprised the article failed to include MSG (Mono Sodium Glutemate) into discussion. If you actually tasted pure MSG and not from a bag of certain Dorito or all Ramen noodle, you know you cannot describe it as sweet salty. You cannot produce the same taste of MSG by combining salt and sugar. There is something else you cannot describe in MSG. That is the taste umami.

      January 17, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  6. Mike

    Interesting. They really need to define the taste clearer and give a translatable word. Umami is great, but doesn't translate to other languages, and is too dissimilar to sweet, sour, bitter and salty. We need a 5th word for the 5th taste.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • jdoe

      How about "umami"?

      January 16, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • James

      I agree. "Umami" means "a pleasant and savory taste," and the wikipedia page for savoriness leads directly to the Umami wiki entry. Sometimes I'll hear someone describe some food as savory and they have no idea what the heck they are talking about so lets just call the fifth taste "Savory."

      January 16, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
      • warm my heart

        Hear, hear!

        January 17, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • nepawoods

      What's wrong with "umami" as the name for it? Do you actually think the word "sweet" describes sweetness? It's a label.

      January 17, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  7. redpenner

    I've always tasted something strangely "meaty" in some tomatoes that I couldn't identify as one of the other basic tastes. I'm relieved to know what it is!

    January 16, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  8. JW

    Britons have known about this for a long time – Bovril (developed circa 1870, product marketed in 1889), and vegetarian Marmite (founded 1902), both in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England. Some Britons refuse to travel abroad without it!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      "Staffordshire: "Home of Lerriers and Food Extracts"! That's quite a tourist pitch!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  9. sybaris

    Something out of nothing.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      Enough of your Old Age culinary thought. The article simply describes something hitherto unknown to our culture that is now ackknowledged as fact by others. Quit acting like a Isolationist: that view leads to cultural inbreeding.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
      • Teabaggers suck

        Go blow yourself tool.

        January 17, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • SherwoodOR

      Something out of nothing? No. This is huge. And it's only beginning to be understood and explored.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • Michael Vick

      Something out of nothing? I totally disagree. For example, if you cook dog meat and add MSG (Mono Sodium Glutemate) to it, you will get a special taste of umami. As I mentioned before, you cannot describe this taste as sweet and salty. If you add sugar and salt, you still cannot duplicate the flavor of MSG. That's why people said MSG brings out the flavor in dogs.

      January 17, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  10. RichardHead

    I thought this was were you had sharp scissors and cut out little stars and flowers from folded paper? I failed my Japanese language class.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Uncle George

      This is umami; I believe you are thinking of Origami ... which is not to be confused with Orgasm, which is a sexual pleasure. Then again, if you add the sharp scissors back into the equation, it could become Circumcision; although for the life of me, I can't imagine a doctor trying to make star and flower shapes out of foreskin.

      How did we get on this topic? :-p

      January 17, 2012 at 12:09 am |
      • RichardHead

        Ouch..My YinYang hurts just thinking about it.:))

        January 17, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  11. JeffinIL

    And I have telekinesis. I posted this with my mind.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • The Amazing Kreskin

      I once had a girfriend who had ESP and PMS, that was one Psychic-8itch

      January 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  12. andyalexa91

    Reblogged this on journal des idées and commented:
    Umami es el quinto sabor que muchos no conocemos, pero está presente en muchas de nuestras comidas. Por tanto, 're-posteo' este artículo publicado por Eatocracy de CNN para que aprendas más sobre el tema.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:23 am |
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