Think of the last time you elevated the flavor of a bowl of pasta with a dusting of Parmesan or deepened the flavor of soup with a couple of spoonfuls of tomato paste. You can give a high-five to umami, a.k.a. the “fifth taste,” for waking up your taste buds.
In many ways, umami is a more complex flavor than its counterparts: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. Roughly translating to “delicious taste” in Japanese parlance, it’s really just that: a flavor that generates a hedonistic rich, meaty sensation and can make other foods, like somewhat basic vegetables and legumes, taste more enticing.
Read on for smart ways to capture umami’s savory depth in recipes with off-the-charts complexity. Time to go deep on flavor and nutrition.
The rise of umami
The syllables umai (delicious essence) and mi (taste) were first joined in the early 1900s, when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda was convinced that his beloved dashi soup contained a flavor nuance that did not fit into any of the other known four flavors. He set forth isolating the amino acid glutamate from kombu that, in addition to some naturally occurring nucleotides, generates a meaty, brothy, “savory” sensation in your mouth.
He then laid a lasting moniker upon the taste. In more recent times, scientists have discovered receptors housed in our taste buds that are triggered specifically by umami, just as there are receptors for sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.
Drying, smoking, braising, aging, and fermentation are all preparation methods that serve to intensify the umami effect. For instance, dried shiitakes will be many times more concentrated in glutamate than fresh versions, making it a powerhouse purveyor of umami. Smoked paprika and smoked salt will have an umami presence not found in standard versions.
But wait, is MSG safe?
Undeniably, MSG has an image problem. The flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamate. Comprising water, sodium, and the amino acid glutamate, MSG works on the same taste receptors as the glutamate in foods.
The much-maligned flavor additive has been at the center of controversy for decades. That’s because it was originally reported to cause symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and brain fog, a condition dubbed “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”
But most of the early studies to test out this hypothesis involved injecting rats with huge doses of MSG—far more than a person would ever eat. Although some people appear to be sensitive to MSG, many can consume it safely in reasonable amounts.
A majority of food scientists insist that MSG produced in a factory and added to foods to enhance their “meaty” taste is handled by the body in the same way as the naturally occurring glutamates that are found in food. Because it’s so flavorful, MSG could help food manufacturers reduce the amount of sodium they would normally add to foods without compromising consumer acceptance, which may be beneficial to those who need to restrict sodium intake for health reasons. MSG has two-thirds less sodium compared to table salt.
But one study found that high exposure to MSG can dampen the taste buds for umami, which could result in receiving less joy from aged cheese and miso soup. In the end, perhaps the biggest reason to be leery about MSG is not that it’s nefarious on its own, but that it’s added to many processed and packaged foods and nutritionally suspect restaurant dishes that we would be better off eating less of. So, overall, it’s best to still get your umami from natural ingredients and more nourishing foods.
Umami shopping list
Add these foods to your shopping cart so that your diet teems with umami:
- bonito flakes
- fish sauce
- green peas
- green tea (especially sencha and gyokuro)
- mackerel (especially smoked)
- mushrooms (shiitake, enoki, crimini)
- nutritional yeast
- aged cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gruyère, Emmental)
- onions (especially caramelized)
- oyster sauce
- potatoes (sweet, white)
- seaweed (nori, kombu, dulse, wakame)
- shellfish (mussels, clams, oysters)
- soy sauce
- tomatoes (especially dried and paste)