Umami is hot right now. As Americans expand their palates to include more foods from different cultures, they’re getting introduced to an abundance of umami-rich foods. Famous chefs are currently featuring it in their menus and building restaurant concepts around it. But umami isn’t just a buzzword or a fad; it’s one of your five basic tastes.
People are generally pretty familiar with the flavors of the other four tastes – sweet, sour, salt, and bitter – but have a tougher time describing umami. Umami is a pleasant savory taste that comes from glutamate and ribonucleotides like inosinate and guanylate. It’s a subtle flavor that blends well with other tastes to expand and round out the flavor of foods. While people have trouble describing the flavor of umami, they instinctively recognize foods with it as being delicious.
If you’re curious about the exact flavor of umami, you can taste it by putting a little MSG (monosodium glutamate) in your mouth. This works because MSG is the purified form of the amino acid, glutamate, which triggers the savory flavor. People generally react to this experiment with an “Oh! That’s what that flavor is called!”
While many people may not be able to immediately put their finger on an umami flavor, humans have loved it for centuries. In Ancient Rome, fermented fish sauces called garum and liquamen were used as seasonings, and were considered as important as wine and olive oil. Aging, curing, and cooking are all techniques people have been employing for hundreds of years to make foods safe and palatable as well as delicious. These techniques, along with ripening, increase the free glutamate content of the foods, making them more savory. Modern favorites like ketchup, ranch dressing, and bacon are also full of umami. And of course, fish sauces are still widely used to boost umami in dishes.
While the flavor of umami is having a moment, it’s here to stay as one of the basic tastes. Attuning yourself to this flavor can help take your dishes to the next level. You likely already use umami boosters like soy sauce, tomatoes, and mushrooms in your cooking, but check out this more extensive list of ingredients to add to your recipes. Of course, you can always just add a dash of MSG to your dish too. (Check out our post on how to cook with MSG if you’re not sure where to start.) Or, if you don’t feel like making dinner yourself, try one of the many restaurants focusing on umami. Bon appétit!