Understanding Umami

We all know about sweet, salty, bitter and sour, but can you name the fifth taste?

What is umami?

The fifth taste is known as umami, pronounced “oo-mah-mee.” It’s commonly found in savoury, moreish foods and has been described as ‘the God particle of the cooking world’ because of the exceptional flavour it gives dishes.

What does umami taste like?

Umami is the holy grail of deliciousness that we seek to obtain with every meal, but is found in many foods already. It’s often associated with Japanese cuisine and dishes like miso soup.

You’ll know it as a savouriness in Western culture, where umami creates harmony between beef and tomato in Bolognese, or makes a ham and cheese toasty irresistible.

Umami explained

In 1908, chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda at the Imperial University of Tokyo identified the glutamic acid in kombu (kelp) seaweed as the fifth taste.

Glutamic acid is an amino acid which signals savoury flavours to the brain, and we’re hardwired to enjoy it. Professor Ikeda named this source of savouriness umami, from the Japanese word for delicious, “umai.”

Where to find umami

As well as kombu seaweed, foods rich in glutamic acid include fermented food, Parmesan and cheddar cheese, cured meats, shiitake mushrooms, asparagus and tomatoes.

How to add umami to food

You can add umami to food in several ways, including:

  • Allowing it to ripen. Fruit and veg which is in season has a well-balanced flavour, naturally higher in umami;
  • Maturing, in the case of cheese;
  • Curing, such as with meat. Proteins are broken during curing processes which releases more amino acids;
  • Cooking, for example roasting tomatoes or stir-frying mushrooms;
  • You can also add a generous sprinkle of Mara Seaweed to your dishes whilst cooking or as a seasoning. Just sayin’.

When you add one umami-rich food to another - such as Dulse to tomatoes - there’s a synergistic effect, as the umami taste doubles.

Seaweed sprinkled on halved cherry tomatoes for umami flavour

    Umami and MSG

    Professor Ikeda wanted to make a seasoning to enhance the flavour of food using umami, so he created Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) by fermenting sugars. It’s entirely tasteless, but boosts the overall flavour of food.

    Today we often get our umami fix through artificial MSG, which is why it’s hard to shake junk food habits. In Asian cuisine, umami in the form of seaweed is widely used as a natural flavour enhancer. It’s a much healthier alternative to the salt or fat that is commonly used in Western diets.

    The benefits of umami

    Seaweed satisfies umami cravings whilst also being good for you. Foods with more ‘umami qualities’ have been shown to increase satiety, or feeling full. So adding a little seaweed to your meals might lead to weight loss.

    Heston Blumenthal commented in The Guardian:

    “In the west, for years we've used fat to add richness and fullness to the food we cook. In the far east, however - and in Japan in particular - that added richness has long been provided by foods with a high umami content, most notably kelp and konbu, the dried seaweed that is used to make that versatile and essential Japanese broth, dashi. This broth really does lend a full-ness of flavour and a meaty tone - and with none of the fattiness that comes from using butter or cream, either.”

     

    Umami recipes

    It’s easy, guilt-free and delicious to sprinkle some seaweed into your cooking. Try adding seaweed where you’d add a stock a cube, seasonings or spices. There’s no wrong way to experiment!

    For more info, read about how to cook with seaweed or head to our recipe pages for inspiration on using seaweed to enhance the flavour of your food.

    Here are some ideas to get you started:

     

    Thanks to the International Glutamate Information Service.


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