Umami 101: Adam Liaw’s Guide to the Least Understood Taste | Australian food and drink


Umami is the key to cooking and it is fundamental for food to taste good.

The only problem with this is that hardly anyone understands what umami is, so let’s start with the basics.

The five flavors

Humans only taste five things: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.

Before telling me that you can also taste coriander, cinnamon, and nine flavors of candy, I should point out that what is colloquially called “taste” is often a combination of different senses combining taste, aroma, touch and other chemical and tactile sensations.

Scientifically, taste could be defined as the perception stimulated by a chemical reaction between a substance and the taste receptors in the mouth – and we only have receptors for five tastes.

We only have receptors for five tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Composite: Getty / Alarmy

Try blocking out your sense of smell by pinching your nose and tasting those things again. The cilantro and cinnamon wouldn’t taste much, and the candies would taste sweet, although you couldn’t tell which of the nine flavors you were eating.

We understand four of our tastes quite well.

Our salty taste tells us that our food contains salts, necessary for fluid regulation. Acidity can help us detect needed vitamins (like vitamin C).

Sweet taste receptors bind to sugars to indicate caloric content, and our finely tuned taste for bitterness is stimulated by a large number of taste receptors that can help us identify substances that may be toxic.

But umami taste receptors bind to amino acids and nucleotides like glutamate, inosinate, and aspartate to stimulate what we might call a “tasty” feeling, and they literally do this to help us to cook.

The story (long and short) of Umami

You can be forgiven for not being entirely through umami, because compared to other tastes, it’s quite new. It wasn’t recognized as a distinct taste until 1990, but over the years there have been many different attempts to describe it.

A chef seasoning a dish with soy sauce while cooking
Even before we understood the science of umami, it was already at work in the kitchens of the world: soy sauce is one example. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

“Umami” translates to “delight,” and the term was coined in 1908 by Japanese scientist Ikeda Kikunae to describe the savory taste produced by glutamate. Since ancient times, the Chinese word “xiān” has also referred to the pleasant taste of savory dishes, describing foods we know to be high in umami such as savory broths.

But even before we understood the science of umami, it was already at work in the kitchens of the world.

Ancient Roman cuisine was defined by “garum”, a fermented fish sauce similar to those used in Asia today. Soy sauce has been part of Chinese cuisine for 2000 years. Drying, fermenting and producing broths are processes that have existed in almost every kitchen.

It’s obvious that we’ve evolved tastes for salty, sweet, sour and bitter, but our evolving selection for umami is even more fascinating.

The umami taste of our foods is enhanced by the processes we call ‘cooking’ – application of heat, fermentation, drying, aging and curing – and many scientists believe that our taste for umami evolved in response to the benefits of cooking.

Heating food kills harmful bacteria. Fermentation allows beneficial bacteria (those that populate our gut) to crowd out harmful ones. Cooking processes often aid the digestion of food, and as such there is an evolutionary basis for umami taste selection.

How to use umami

When I learn a new cuisine, I look for the techniques, the preparations or the raw materials that provide the umami necessary for the good taste of the food.

Searing a steak rather than boiling it is a technique applied to the pursuit of umami, with high heat producing a brown crust through a set of chemical reactions known as Maillard reactions. It is the same for the flash of “wok hei” essential for good wok cooking.

A fried steak on a cutting board.
Searing a steak rather than boiling it is a technique applied to the pursuit of umami, which the French gourmand Brillat-Savarin described as “osmazome” in his 1825 Physiologie Du Goût. Photography: Elena Veselova/Alamy

When boiling rather than searing, we choose to boil umami-rich preparations like broth or wine, or add umami seasonings like soy sauce, fish sauce, or miso.

Ingredients like meat, seafood, and dairy products are high in umami, especially when fermented and aged like cheese.

Cabbage is also umami, which is why you see the combination of fermented cabbage and meat in cuisines from Germany to Korea. Umami-rich tomatoes have been ubiquitous in cuisines around the world since their introduction from the Americas, and mushrooms are eaten with gusto in every climate they are found.

However, the easiest way to add pure umami taste to your food is in the form of MSG or monosodium glutamate, a salt naturally found in a wide variety of foods and even produced by the human body ( which contains about 2 kg of glutamate in an average-sized human).

MSG has been unfairly and unscientifically decried for decades – to the point that many are now terrified of a pinch of MSG crystals on our food, but don’t think to consume the exact same substance in greater amounts by sprinkling salt on it. a tomato, having a grating of parmesan or a bite of sauerkraut.

Umami is so ingrained in our way of cooking that it is not strictly necessary to understand it to cook well. However, when you realize that much of what we call “technique” – browning meat for a stew, deglazing a pan with wine, or making a nice broth – is actually done in pursuit of umami , you cannot deny its importance. . More than its four counterparts, umami is the taste of cooking.


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