Umami: Why chefs love the ‘fifth flavour’
Umami’s a word that’s thrown about a lot in the culinary world, often with connotations of meaty moreishness and rich, indulgent flavours. But what exactly does umami actually mean? Why do chefs love it? And more frankly, what even is it?
The main tagline is that umami is regarded as being the ‘fifth flavour’; sour, sweet, salty, bitter… and umami! Quite simply, it adds ‘oomph’ to your food. The taste has been around forever, but it wasn’t until 1985 that official food bodies even regarded umami as an individual flavour at all. That technically makes umami a millennial (did you know seaweed is the perfect addition to avo on toast?).
On the taste scale, it’s best identified as the flavour of extreme savouriness and, as such, can be found in a plethora of different foods, like Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and of course, seaweed.
So what is this unique taste? Savoury goodness, that’s what. It’s often thought of as being quite a meaty, rich flavour, something like the taste you’d expect to find when dipping your spoon deep into a dark, bubbling broth or a succulently simmering stew. Chef’s love the flavour of umami because it’s associated with a deep, rich taste that’s luxurious and intense and can be found and created in a plethora of foods.
That aforementioned glutamate is the key to umami’s goodness – it creates a desire for more, that moreish quality that makes taking another bite almost irresistible, hitting that sweet spot for savoury cravings at the back of your throat. It affects the salivation on your tongue that stimulates your mouth and throat and makes you want more. It’s a deep, dark intensity that ensures one bite is never enough.
In short, umami exists in a natural chemical to make food more enjoyable. What’s not to love?
The entire history of umami
Can you guess what food Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered umami in? Seaweed, of course! More specifically, it was kombu kelp that helped Ikeda identify just what makes the Japanese stock dashi taste like, well, dashi.
Having reportedly loved eating his wife’s dish so much, he wanted to dig deep into its molecular make-up to find that unidentifiable, special something that makes dashi (of which seaweed is an integral ingredient) so darn tasty. It was then that he found the glutamic acid, or glutamate, of umami. Put simply, glutamate is an amino acid and the one single particle that informs our taste receptors to tell our brains ‘this right here, this is savoury’. The more glutamate in your food, the more your brain wants to eat it.
Ikeda coined the term ‘umami’, named so after the Japanese for ‘delicious’, with umami roughly translating ‘deliciousness’ – which is pretty much on the money too. Seaweed helped Ikeda discover the umami flavour, it’s the reason we know about it enough to write about it today!
When Ikeda discovered umami, he loved it so much, he wanted to create more of it. That’s where MSG comes in. Ikeda created MSG – that’s Monosodium Glutamate – to help boost the flavour in foods, adding a moreish quality to their flavour. While it’s tasteless itself, Ikeda basically invented fast-food’s future secret weapon, with most fast-food outlets using MSG in their food to get customers hooked and keep coming back for more.
That’s why seaweed is the umami anomaly. It improves the flavour of your food, but it’s also a natural ingredient that doesn’t require MSG to make it so flavour-packed. Eating umami-rich seaweed leaves you feeling full and satisfied without having to gorge on burgers or fries, while also working as an effective substitute for salt too.
Have I eaten umami before?
If you’ve ever eaten food before, then you’ve tasted umami.
It’s in a wide range of different foods, from meats like pork and beef, vegetables like tomatoes and peas, to seafood and fish – all of which are foods typically plentiful in umami. It’s also found in drinks too, with green tea and cocktails like a traditional bloody mary also rather umami-full.
In Japanese cuisine, Dashi stock, made by infusing whole Kombu strips, is the central building block of Japanese cuisine, the equivalent to the ‘stock pot’ in Western cooking. The Japanese have long implicitly understood the importance of the umami and Kombu is so revered that some particular Kombu growing areas in Japan supply the Emperor’s household.
Asian cooking, where umami indebted flavours of soy sauce are heavy in a deep, savoury richness, umami is a core flavour to many recipes, like miso soup and stir-fries.
Seaweed, as you might have guessed, is particularly excellent for easing that umami craving. Kombu kelp is traditionally known as one of the most umami-rich seaweeds and wanting more of it isn’t a problem because seaweed is such a healthy substance. That’s because seaweed is so full of nutrients, it’s a superfood that can improve your diet – so there’s no guilt to be had about satisfying your umami cravings with kombu at all.
Umami and your food
So now you know all about why umami is so important in cooking, you’re probably wondering how and when you’d typically use it in your own meals. Well, fear not, for umami is in so much food, that cooking with it is not as difficult or challenging as it may seem.
You can help your food to load up with umami in several ways, like curing your meat, maturing your cheese, allowing your fruit and veg to get deliciously ripe, and cooking foods that need heating, like mushrooms and raw veg.
However, the easiest and most mouth-watering way to bulk up your umami game is to add a little touch of seaweed to your meals. By stirring in some kombu flakes over your fish or meat dishes, you can really help to open up the door to flavour town and welcome that savoury richness onto your palette.
While you’re at it, passing on the salt, stock cubes and seasoning also helps to explore the umami in your food, and instead add some seaweed flakes into your meals. That way, you still get all the rich, savoury flavours without drowning them out in unnecessary levels of salt and sodium.
If you’re still in need of a bit of culinary inspiration, you can find a whole heap of umami-packed recipes here.
Don’t forget you can get yourself some umami-rich seaweed products direct from our online store, with free delivery on any orders over £20.