From an early age, we are taught to identify flavors, a perfect way to learn and get to know the world and interact with food. Sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. Some we like more than others. But there is a fifth taste that our tongue can identify, umami, a forgotten taste that has been known about relatively recently and is very difficult to describe.
That’s right. Humans can recognize five basic tastes thanks to the properties of the tongue. Each of them has characteristics that make it unique and easily recognizable. We quickly identify cod as salty, strawberries as sweet, coffee as bitter, and vinegar as sour. What about umami? Umami could be described as a pleasant, savory taste.
Umami is the most pleasant taste despite being in the shadow of salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. Taste buds detect the umami taste in some foods.
The word umami comes from the Japanese language and means something like ‘pleasant, tasty or delicious taste.’ This word comes from the combination of the terms umai ‘delicious’ and mi ‘taste.’
The umami taste, considered the fifth taste, was not correctly identified until 1908, when the scientist Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, first identified the umami taste. He discovered that glutamate was responsible for foods, such as the broth from cooking Kombu seaweed, having a flavor distinct from sweet, sour, bitter, and salty tastes, and named it umami.
Taste buds detect the umami taste in some foods. Taste buds detect the umami taste in some foods, such as mushroom seasoning.
Umami is a subtle but long-lasting aftertaste and, as we said, difficult to describe. It induces salivation and a velvety sensation on the tongue that stimulates the throat, palate, and back of the mouth. By itself, umami is not savory, but it enhances the pleasant taste of a wide range of foods, especially in the presence of complementary aromas.
But like other basic flavors-except is pleasant only within a relatively narrow range of concentration. The optimal umami taste also depends on the amount of salt. At the same time, low-salt foods can taste satisfactory with the right amount of umami.
The glutamate that enhances umami flavor is present in many of the products we consume every day. Cheese, anchovies, ripe tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, soy sauce, cured ham, shiitake mushrooms, or mushroom seasoning are some of the foods rich in umami. For this reason, ingredients such as cheese or tomato are often used to enhance the savory flavor of dishes.
In addition to being an enhancer of some flavors, these umami-rich glutamate foods balance other flavors. Thus, suitable ingredients, for example, would lower the bitter sensation and enhance the sweetness to create a dish with harmony and balance.