Have you ever wondered why you are craving certain foods? Do you find it difficult to stop eating potato chips? It isn’t only due to our lack of self-control. The reason is a commonly unknown taste called umami. It is also referred to as the fifth taste and the relatively new member to the group of basic tastes, which was previously believed span only four. When wanting to know what umami really is about, one has to look at the history of taste. Understanding umami is not just a lesson in cooking, but offers insights about our food behaviour, our cravings and even ourselves.
According to the Greek philosopher Democritus, there are the four basic tastes that each of us consumes on a daily basis. These four tastes don’t come as a surprise to anyone. When we eat cakes and chocolate, we taste sweetness. While apple cider vinegar is sour, coffee and dill can create a bitter taste in our mouth. Last on the list is salt.
Democritus has created a theory about atoms, which claims that just about everything is composed of atoms. Long story short, he claims that when the food we chew crumbles into smaller bites, these tiny bits brake into four shapes. Some are round and large, subsequently creating sweetness. While a sour sensation is described as having large atoms and an angular shape, a bitter taste is characterised by small, round and smooth atoms. The salty sensation is generated by the isosceles triangle.
The main focus of Democritus’ investigation wasn’t taste though. In the 19th century more modern scientists discovered taste buds. Viewed under a microscope, taste buds look like keyholes. According to some research at the time, Democritus’ theories suddenly started to make sense again. As each food has different shapes and forms, one can also assume that there are differently sized ‘keyhole’ for them to fit it. Considering the four different tastes, one can therefore conclude the existence of four different keyhole shapes.
Surely, there are more tastes and sensations to describe food, such as spiciness, numbness, fattiness, heartiness, temperature and many more. Those belong though to an entirely different story. Talking about umami, we are only concerned with the basic tastes.
The next person in the history of taste was Auguste Escoffier. He was a revolutionary chef and the first person in the 19th century, who attempted to define the meaning of umami. Strangely though, he didn’t even know. Auguste Escoffier lived in a time when haute cuisine actually tasted terrible despite its beautiful appearance. At the time, grande cuisine was an unnecessary display of wealth in order to attract attention, admiration and envy.
Other chefs at the time, such as the world’s first celebrity chef Marie-Antoine Careme, often created gorgeous but inedible food like pièces montées Escoffier disagreed with such common practices and thought of it as being ridiculous. He wondered if beautifully looking food can’t be eaten, what differentiates the dish then from a sculpture? Why should time and resources be wasted to sculpt marzipan, if it can’t be consumed? Faites simple, making it simple, was Escoffier’s cooking mantra. He believed that dishes should consist of nothing, but essential and perfect ingredients.
Following his ideals, he created absolutely simple dishes, one of them being veal. This dish in particular turned out to be tricky. As the taste wasn’t sweet, bitter, sour, salty or any combination of these four, people thought the dish wasn’t real. Even though it legitimately was. Escoffier thought that this newly discovered fifth taste was the key to his success. However, it scientifically wasn’t proven to be real. At the time, nobody had realised that Escoffier had given his customer a taste of umami.
Umami was discovered by chance
The story of umami continues on the other side of the world. In 1908 the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda had his eureka-moment, as he enjoyed his surprisingly different bowl of dashi. He didn’t reinvent the wheel, but he thought his seaweed soup tasted peculiar. Trying to define the experienced taste, he couldn’t find a match with any of the four basic tastes.
Little did he know that he experienced umami – the missing fifth taste. But what really is umami? Compared to the other four, the discovery of the taste is still a very recent one.
As Ikeda was a chemist, he went to his lab to find out what makes dashi so piquant. His findings included a secret ingredient: glutamic acid. As this name didn’t sound delicious at all, he decided to rename it. “Umami” is a combination of the two Japanese words, “umai” (“delicious”) and “mi” (“taste”). Put together, the words simply translate to delicious taste. Ideda simply named is finding after what he thought he tasted. Hence, the word umami connotes the meaning.
Next to sour, sweet, salty and bitter – umami is the fifth taste. It does not fall under any other categorisation. It is now considered as part of the basic tastes. According to Ikeda, it can commonly be recognised in asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat. However, providing a proper and singular definition of umami remains problematic. Sampling and tasting umami is generally much easier than trying to define it.
In what food do we find the umami flavour?
Generally, umami is described as a pleasant broth-like and meaty taste. It leaves a long lasting, mouth-watering and coating sensation. Paul Breslin of the Monell University said that umami can be found in the fermentation of beans and grains as well as in broths and soups, especially if those have been cooked slowly for a long time. Massimo Bottura is the chef patron of Osteria Francescana and believes that Parmesan cheese is the closest equivalent to umami flavour in Western cuisine.
However, there are more ingredients that can be umami foods. That list includes wild mushrooms, petit pois, sweet corn, dried seafood, kelp, fermented seafood-based products, shiitake mushrooms and human milk. It seems that we have been experiencing the incredible fifth taste long before we actually ever thought of it. Already the Ancient Romans have had their taste of umami. As salt and sugar were scarce, the Romans had been using garum and liquamen to enrich their food. Both can be described as having an umami flavour.
A curious fact about umami is the flavour enhancement. Laura Santtini is the creator of an umami seasoning called Umami Condiment Taste No 5 Umami Paste and is aware of the multiplier effect that it can have. When combining two different umami foods, one plus one does not necessarily equal two – it might be eight. This explosion of taste can for example be sampled when eating burgers with cheese and tomato. It is a true umami-bomb, generating fireworks for the taste buds. Next time you can’t stop eating potato chips, you know why – blame it on umami. Understanding the fifth flavour, one also starts to grasp why one carves certain food more than others. Umami is the key to our food behaviour.