Still not sure what umami is? Read this.

Growing up, we were all taught about the four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. But in the past few years, a new flavour category has been gaining momentum: umami. Unlike the original four, umami is a little harder to define, and if you don’t have a total grasp on what it means, you’re definitely not alone. But today, we’re going to do our best to set the record straight, once and for all.

So…what is umami?

First up? The name. The word “umami” is Japanese, and the meaning is something along the lines of  “pleasant savoury taste.” What it stands for is an inherent savoury or meaty flavour – the thing that makes a really delicious dish lip-smackingly tasty. Why the Japanese name? Because it was first defined in Japan, by chemist and food lover Kikunae Ikeda in the 1900s. After tasting something in a bowl of seaweed soup (or dashi) that couldn’t be described by one of the existing four taste categories, Ikeda decided to use his scientific knowledge to figure it out. And so, umami was born.

But, it wasn’t until 1985 that the Umami International Symposium officially determined that “umami” was the scientific term for this new fifth taste. In order to qualify umami as its own taste group, researchers had to prove that it could not be produced by any combination of the four existing tastes, and that it had its own specific flavour receptors.

So, we’ve established that umami really is its own taste category. But that still leaves the question: what IS umami, exactly? Technically speaking, the taste comes from glutamate – a type of amino acid you’ll find in many different foods, from meat to cheese to veggies. When glutamate breaks down, whether from cooking or fermentation, it turns into L-glutamate, creating a delicious “meaty” taste.

Does glutamate sound familiar? That’s because it’s the main component in monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG. This flavour enhancer has a really interesting history, which is worth a short aside. Think about MSG, and your mind likely goes to negative side effects after eating Chinese food. The fact is, the idea of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” didn’t come from any scientific study – it all began with one letter to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, back in the 1960s. The press got hold of the story, and the rest is history.

But the fact remains, MSG is naturally occurring in many foods, from tomatoes to parmesan, and studies have shown again and again that it’s not actually bad for you. How interesting that knowing all we do about MSG being perfectly good for you, Chinese restaurants still have to assure patrons they don’t add MSG to their food. It just goes to show how far misinformation can spread if people find it believable. In fact, MSG isn’t just safe to eat…it’s a dietary godsend for people cutting down on sodium, as MSG adds flavour to a dish without adding extra salt!

How long has it been around?

We’ve have been using glutamate to add flavour to our food for almost as long as we’ve been cooking at all. In ancient Rome, people seasoned their food with glutamate-rich fermented fish sauces. And in China, they’ve been eating umami-packed soy sauce since the third century.

And why are we so drawn to this meaty, savoury flavour? Just like the other four basic tastes, umami detection was key to helping early humans survive. With glutamate usually coming from high-protein foods, the taste of umami is a signal to your body that you’re eating something protein-rich – setting off a chain of events in your digestive system to help you process your meal. So now you know why a super savoury meal makes your mouth start watering…it’s just your body telling your saliva glands to start doing their thing.

Which foods contain umami?

With the idea of “meatiness” included right in the definition of umami, it’s no surprise that meat is a major source of this flavour profile. But if you’re following a vegetarian or plant-based diet, there are still a ton of umami-rich foods for you to try. Here are just a few:

  • Seaweed. Low in calories, packed with antioxidants and a great vegetarian source of omega 3s, seaweed is the superfood we should all be eating more often. Try adding kombu (dried seaweed) to your broth to add a rich layer of umami flavour, or topping your rice bowl with shredded seaweed.
  • Soy products. When soy beans are fermented, they can create a host of different tasty umami bombs, from soy sauce to miso to tempeh. Try adding miso to your next salad dressing, or fry up some cubes of tempeh until golden brown and glaze them with a drizzle of soy sauce.
  • Tomatoes. Believe it or not, tomatoes are one of the best plant-based sources of umami – especially cherry tomatoes. Try slow-roasting small tomatoes at a low temperature to concentrate their rich sweet-savoury taste, then add them to a grain bowl or sandwich – or simply toss them with whole wheat pasta and a little olive oil.
  • Mushrooms.There’s a good reason mushrooms are often used as a “meaty” stand-in in vegetarian cooking – they are packed with glutamate! Don’t just stop at button mushrooms…try working with umami-rich dried shiitake or porcini mushrooms. They’re wonderful added to any broth, or chopped up and added to brown rice for a simple pilaf. Or if you don’t feel like cooking, give our Umami Bowl a try!
  • Aged cheeses. If you’re not following a strict vegan diet, cheese can be a wonderful way to add savoury depth to a dish without meat. Aged parmesan is particularly rich in umami, and a fantastic topping for anything from salads to soups to pastas. Really, is there anything that isn’t improved by a little sprinkle of parm?

Feeling inspired? We don’t blame you. Umami-rich foods are some of the tastiest ingredients around. And adding umami is a wonderful way to elevate the flavour of any dish without adding extra salt. Now go forth and glutamate!