Judging by how people dissect its meaning, you’d think “umami” was the culinary equivalent of Finnegans Wake. It’s a “deep, dark, meaty intensity” (The New Yorker), or “really, really yummy in a non-sweet, sour, bitter or salty way” (NPR). From descriptions like that, it comes across as incredibly vague, like an elusive, ungraspable taste. And yet the word has infiltrated our culinary lexicon. Recipes call for “umami bombs” to help punch up flavor; the popular burger chain, Umami Burger, built an empire based off its “crave worthy” characteristics, calling its patties “savory, bold and flavorful.” Umami is used to take a dish from 0 to 100—more intensity, more oomph.
Is it an ingredient? MSG? Is umami really that hard to understand, or are we just mystifying something that’s fundamental to how we experience flavor?
To be clear, umami is a taste just like sweet, salty, sour or bitter. It it also the result of multiple discoveries. At the turn of the 20th century, French culinary legend Auguste Escoffier discovered that boiling bones in his veal stock gave it an intense flavor that didn’t fit into any of the predefined categories. Around the same time, in 1908, Japanese chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda was trying to find what made dashi taste so good. While studying with Wilhelm Ostwald in Leipzig, Germany, he recognized a similar flavor in dashi and some of the German foods he was eating. “There is a taste,” he said, “which is common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but which is not one of the four well-known tastes.”
Eventually he found it—glutamic acid, which, when broken down during the cooking process, turns into L-glutamate, an amino acid we can taste. Glutamic acid was discovered by Karl Heinrich Ritthausen in 1886, but he didn’t pursue its flavor properties. Ikeda was the one who linked L-glutamate compound to the intensely savory flavor, dubbing it umami, which translates as anything from “yummy” to “savory deliciousness” in English. We’ve known about umami for more than 100 years now, but for further scientific proof, from the 1980s through the early 2000s, research showed that humans have taste receptors for L-glutamate, and modified glutamate receptors in our brains. Umami was, on a molecular level, real; it was touted as a “new” flavor even though we’d been tasting it all along.
“Ultimately, umami is about how language affects perception.”
Don’t be scared off by the chemistry here: The point is that our tongues experience umami the same way they experience salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. It is a flavor common to many foods and cuisines, from parmesan cheese, to anchovies, to roasted tomatoes.
“I discovered the fifth taste after reading an article on the subject,” says chef Mara Salles of São Paulo restaurant Tordesilhas. However, she understood intuitively that there was something happening with certain ingredients. “I learned from my mother to explore flavors that give joy to dishes, such as tomatoes, sardines, cured cheese, bacon, eggs, and of course, sweet corn.” The same goes for Laura Santtini, author of At Home With Umami, and creator of a line of umami-centric seasonings. “It’s the thing we all know and love,” she says. “But up until now, it’s been over-complicated.”
If it’s just another flavor, why are we so baffled by it? Part of it is that it’s not as straightforward to manipulate as other flavors. You add sugar to make something sweet, salt for saltiness, lemon juice or vinegar for sour. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, developed in 1909, is the equivalent seasoning to produce umami, but the taboos against it in the Western kitchen (whether fueled by MSG sensitivities or anti-Asian biases) means that not many home cooks are comfortable sprinkling some onto a dish.
The other reason is that umami suffers from the same language constraints as other flavors do. Go ahead, try to describe sweetness without it turning into a tautology. See? Since Americans didn’t have the words to define it properly, any description started to feel mysterious. By the time we nailed down an appropriate word, its Japanese association led many Westerners to exoticize the universal flavor, making it seem more unusual than it really is.
The learning curve for understanding umami was demonstrated in 1985, when Michael O’Mahony produced the results of a study in which he asked Japanese and American subjects to describe the taste of an MSG solution. More than 50% of the Japanese subjects immediately recognized umami, compared to only 10% of Americans. The rest called it salty, or an “indefinite taste.” The theory is that many common Japanese ingredients and dishes—dashi, seaweed, bonito flakes—have a pure umami flavor, so it’s something the Japanese are readily familiar with.
Ultimately, the story of umami reminds us how language affects perception. According to many studies, our ancestors couldn’t identify the color blue. It wasn’t until ancient Egyptians produced a blue dye that the color got a name, and to this day tribes that haven’t produced the blue color on their own can’t pick it out of a lineup. Umami is our blue. Until we were able to find glutamic acid and measure its presence in our food, it was elusive, and on the scale of human existence, its classification is relatively new. It’s not hard to detect, but it is understandable that it’s taken so long to settle into our culinary language.
But to be clear: It’s just another flavor.