The dark horse of our misunderstood taste buds, the elusive fifth flavor umami has recently risen into widespread culinary consciousness. Umami Burger, the first umami-concept restaurant in America, lures Los Angeles patrons with a menu that combines umami-rich ingredients for the ultimate savory experience available between two buns. On the commercial side, major brand soy sauces find themselves hocking a condiment packed with umami’s key savory element—glutamate—and they’re taking charge with an aggressive publicity campaign including websites and commercials. But before umami is entirely co-opted as the latest culinary trend, let’s remember it’s been in the kitchen for ages—ever since the first cook unwittingly harnessed the savory-richness of an intangible, but delicious, natural compound.
In fact an entire century has passed since Japanese scientist Kinukae Ikeda first coined the term “umami,” a casual descriptor meant to at least temporarily identify the chemicals Ikeda isolated as the key factor in the savory flavor of dashi. Taken from the Japanese word for “yummy,” umami has since remained a latent—but potent—element in the arsenal of the working chef. Little attention was paid in the years following Ikeda’s discovery, but with increasing rapidity in the 21st century, the culinary industry is becoming more conscious of the term and the phenomenon it describes.
To guide both consumer and chef expectations of umami, organizations like the Umami Information Center, established in 1982, have been broadcasting news about umami to the world for nearly three decades—and it seems to have finally caught on. The UIC provides a thorough introduction to the umami phenomenon, with recipes, chemical breakdowns, relevant publications, and a list of umami-rich ingredients.
And as umami continues to reach mainstream consciousness, its place in the kitchen is increasingly diversified and has proven to go well beyond Japanese ingredients. Chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and even sommeliers have a new range of options as they manipulate this relatively late and teasingly elusive addition to the known flavor repertoire. From desserts that use its savor to provide a balanced flavor profile to cocktails that avail themselves of umami’s unctuous undertones to create full-bodied drinks, umami pervades the restaurant menu well beyond the entrées. And this will only increase as umami becomes a fully understood quantity in the kitchen.
Fast Facts on Umami:
- Discovered in 1908 by Japanese scientist Kinukae Ikeda
- Result of concentration of glutamate, an amino acid, and ribonucleotides guanylate, inosinate, and adenylate
- Typically associated with glutamate, but many ingredients chiefly owe their “umami” savor to inosinate, guanylate, and adenylate
- Glutamate concentration increases as an ingredient ripens
- Flavor of umami often described as “meaty” or “savory,” although it can be found in sweet ingredients
- Often found in fermented ingredients, like soy sauce and marmite
- Because of its characteristic savor, umami can replace the need for high-fat ingredients
- Organizations, like the Umami Information Center, have sprung up to inform the eating and cooking public about the most current umami-related research, culinary events, and ingredients
Umami Information Center (Japan Head Office)
5th Floor, MS Building