Never heard of it? You’re not alone! Most of us learn about the five senses from a young age, sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, but not everyone knows what the five basic tastes are – much less about umami.
Alongside sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness, umami is one of the five basic tastes also described as the savoury taste. Many describe is as a meaty, brothy type taste. It was discovered by Western scientists and considered part of our gastronomic evolution – i.e., the way we cook and eat food.
The word umami comes from Japanese and roughly translates as a pleasant savoury taste. In 1908 chemist Kikunae Ikeda coined the term whilst working at Tokyo University and noticing a particular taste in meat as well as foods like tomatoes and asparagus. He found that it was strongest in a popular rich stock used as a flavour base in a lot of Japanese cooking. He identified the amino acid glutamate as the savoury source.
Nowadays umami is to thank for the warming and comforting feeling we get from a good gravy and even behind the taste of national treasure to some – Marmite. Parmesan is thought to be the most umami ingredient in Western cooking, closely followed by the likes of truffles, earthy mushrooms, soy sauce and perhaps more surprisingly anchovies.
Whilst it refers to a meaty taste, raw meat isn't actually that umami, it becomes umami when you release the amino acids through cooking, especially during slow-cooking and in things like broths or soups. Fermentation also sets the umami taste free, which is why you experience it in cheese and cured meats.