What is Umami?
- Holly Helt
What is Umami?
The word is now fashionable in restaurants across the world, but what is this fifth taste sensation called umami?
Trying to describe umami is a challenge in the same way that describing sweet is next to impossible. We know what a sweet taste is because we have experienced it and it is fully on the tongue. Umami is not salty, sweet, sour, or bitter, nor is it a combination of any of these. The word umami is formed by the Japanese word delicious (umai) and mi (taste).
Umami is a taste and a sensation that happens on the tongue with anything containing NATURAL, not artificial, glutamic acid or glutamates. It's savory and makes you salivate as well as have a slight fuzzy feeling on the tongue.
You’ve no doubt heard of MSG or monosodium glutamate, commonly found in Chinese food and much of Asian foods. It often gets a bad wrap for making you feel bad, likely due to the increased levels of sodium (disodium 5'‐inosinate (IMP) or disodium 5′‐guanylate (GMP)) used in combination with MSG as an artificial flavor enhancer. We are talking about natural glutamates and the monosodium glutamate compound is the basis for umami.
Umami was first noted around 1908 thanks to the Japanese scientist and foodie Professor Kikunae Ikeda who discovered that a specific type of seaweed in his soup called kombu (kelp) was responsible for the taste he classified as “Ajinomoto” or a thing of taste or essence of flavor, permeating much of Japanese cuisine. This discovery captivated him so much that he spend the next year studying the composition of kombu to understand this ajinomoto quality.
He discovered that natural glutamates develop when foods are fermented, aged, cooked, or processed (steamed in the case of matcha and Japanese green tea). Other foods containing umami include but are not limited to cheeses, aged meats, certain mushrooms, miso, dashi, truffles and the list goes on. The raw food community is likely very familiar with umami as so much of the cuisine is fermented or includes nama shoyu, Bragg’s liquid aminos, and other such umami-boosting ingredients.
Professor Ikeda went on to discover how this flavor could be mass-produced and developed a process which he patented. He called his company Ajinomoto and it is the world’s leading producer of MSG, initially extracted from wheat and defatted soybeans but today it is produced from fermented cornstarch, sugar cane or beet.
It wasn’t until 1985 at the Umami International Symposium in Hawaii that umami received classification as an official taste. This was given due to a different receptor on the tongue which is required for umami to be felt and tasted, whereas the four other tastes (sour, bitter, sweet, and salty) arise out of a combination of taste receptors. Umami has a very distinct and isolated receptor that does not react to any other flavor.
Food manufacturers are now using umami (MSG) to improve the deliciousness of low sodium and otherwise bland products. Chefs are also getting into the act by creating recipes using multiple umami ingredients combined to boost the flavor. In fact umami is becoming a household term thanks to chains like Umami Burger which took the West Coast by storm opening in LA in 2007 and have expanded into Japan in 2020, the birthplace of umami.
Winding back to matcha and Japanese green tea, when a description states that the predominate flavor is umami or that it contains a lot of umami, or is an umami bomb, that translates to serious deliciousness! A perfect sip of tea will be rounded and balanced and have an inviting mouthfeel, which is exactly what umami is famous for...deepening the taste of a dish or bowl of matcha or cup of green tea so that you can taste, appreciate, and revel in its perfection.
All of our teas have umami but some are more pronounced than others, especially our matcha. If you want to try an incredible umami bomb, then head for our SILK matcha and pick up the Matcha Starter Kit which includes a 40g tin of it to get you off and running!
About Holly Helt
Holly is American and grew up in Japan drinking Japanese tea from age-three. She has studied two methods of tea ceremony, Urasenke and the lesser-known Yabunouchi, which has a direct lineage to Sen-no Rikyu (known as the father of the tea ceremony) ; it's also the school of practice for samurai. In 2012 she founded Chiki Tea - an online retailer of Japanese green teas, all sourced directly from small farms in Japan. Splitting her time between Japan and her home in Texas, Holly strives to bring the best teas from Japan to as many people as she can find to share in her life's passion.