Umami: The Fifth Taste

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Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, the fifth taste.

Many factors influence our perceptions of food – our mood, where we are eating it and with whom we are sharing it, its colour, temperature, texture and aroma – but at the most basic level it is a function of the receptors on our tongues.

Until Dr. Kikuni Ikeda set out early in the 20th century to identify the subtle “deliciousness” of kombu (kelp) it was believed that these receptors detected only sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Dr. Ikeda discovered that the glutamate in kombu was the source of this savoury yumminess and he called it umami.

The Doctor went on to discover that other foods had this quality – meat, of course, but also shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes and sundried bonito flakes, and that in addition to glutamates, guanylates and inosinates were responsible for the elusive, but intuitively understood, fifth taste.

It is now recognized that umami is present in a wide range of foods – including preserved vegetables, fermented beans and seafood in Asia (kimchi, soy sauce, miso, fish sauce, shrimp paste, oyster sauce), and salted fish products (anchovy paste, tinned sardines, caviar), charcuterie, aged cheeses, truffles, and preserved fruit and vegetables (sauerkraut, olives) in the West.

fish sauce

If you cook, you understand umami, even if you’ve never heard the word. You know that a weak, flat, boring stock or sauce can be transformed into something sublime with a splash of fish sauce or a bit of miso, a handful of chopped olives or a squeeze of anchovy paste, or a grating of parmesan.

What you may not know is that you can be reasonably daring with umami rich ingredients. Many chefs have discovered that traditionally Asian ingredients such as soy sauce, miso, oyster sauce and fish sauce are useful additions to Western pantries. Try a few tablespoons of miso in your pasta primavera, a splash of fish sauce in your marinara, a few tablespoons of oyster sauce in your Lancashire hot pot, or substitute umami-rich Chinese sausage for equally umami-rich pancetta.

Have some fun, enliven your cooking, and own it, with the fifth taste.