Taking its name from Japanese, umami is a pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. As the taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don’t recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious.

When humans eat, they use all of their senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste) to form general judgments about their food, but it is taste that is the most influential in determining how delicious a food is. Conventionally, it has been thought that our sense of taste is comprised of four basic, or ‘primary’, tastes, which cannot be replicated by mixing together any of the other primaries: sweet, sour, salt and bitter. However, it is now known that there is actually the fifth primary taste: umami.

Over the last decade umami has gain a great amount of popularity. This is in part due to the rise in popularity of Japanese food (mainly sushi, tempura and teriyaki) and partly because some of the world’s most popular chefs in the media including Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal (both of who have written forwards for books about umami) have promoted its importance in the overall flavour of dishes.

Dr. Kurihara, president of the Umami Information Center suggests that the main impetus for the Japanese food boom was triggered by the Senator George McGovern’s report. In the 70s, US Senator George McGovern conducted a seven-year research project collaborating with world famous nutrition, health and medical specialists. It was summarized in the report, “Dietary Goals For The United States” which was prepared by the staff of the selected committee on nutrition and human needs of the US Senate, February 1977.

He proposed six goals suggesting changes in food selection and preparation such as:
・ Increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
・ Decrease consumption of meat and increase consumption of poultry and fish.
・ Decrease consumption of foods high in fat and partially substitute poly-unsaturated fat for saturated fat.
Since these suggested guidelines just happened to be close to the Japanese traditional diet, Japanese food suddenly drew worldwide attention.

The information results in more attention to the Japanese foods, and what’s more, raises the popularity of umami as a characteristic traits of Japanese foods, and makes an awareness of the dashi as Japanese simple umami soup stock. It is well-known that umami and dashi bring satisfaction in low fat diet without sacrificing the taste. We have to wait for further researches to prove the health benefits of umami or dashi. In the meantime, many chefs are applying umami or dashi to their dish in creating their low fat recipes.

The other four basic tastes, sweet, sour, bitter and salty, were found and recognized as basic tastes very early in history, on the other hand, it took so long for umami to be identified as a basic taste. Though umami is found in garum which was excavated in Ancient Roman historic site, it had been neither identified nor named for long. Compared to discovery of salt 5000 years ago, umami has carried the name only since 1908.

Even after the discovery by Dr. Kikuknae Ikeda in 1908, it took some time that umami was recognized internationally compared to other four tastes, though it is commonly present in many foods, including tomatoes, mushrooms, cheeses, cured hams and anchovies. It is mainly because of its subtle properties, but in addition to that, the fact that these discoveries were all made by Japanese scientists, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, Mr. Shintaro Kodama and Dr. Akira Kuninaka, may have contributed to its slow recognition. Initially, foreign scientists considered that only Japanese could detect umami. The idea that umami is a basic taste was not commonly shared at the beginning.

In 1979, Japanese scientists published a paper in English entitled “The Umami Taste” at Joint US -Japan Science Conference. For too long, researchers had focused only on four tastes and, consequently, they studied only four; even though the matrix outlined by the German psychologist Hans Hening in 1916 already recognized that four tastes were insufficient. Finally, there was an explanation that accounted for some of the questions raised in taste physiology.

After 1982, many scientists of Japan, America and Europe joined forces to research on umami. Psychophysical and electrophysiological studies showed that umami is independent of the traditional four tastes. Furthermore, a specific receptor for glutamate representing umami substances was identified. Now there is no doubt that umami is the fifth basic taste.

This article had been collated from the Umami Information Center , their website contains information and research articles all related to Umami.

For details on dashi, its relationship with umami and basic recipe click here