Contrary to popular belief, we have five, not four, basic tastes. Many of you are probably aware of the first four: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Most do not know what the fifth taste is, and who can blame them? For awhile, scientists debated over whether this taste, known as “umami,” was credible. Some had trouble describing it, while others simply defined it as the taste of glutamates and nucleotides. It has definitely proven to be the “je ne sais quoi” of the senses.
So what exactly is umami? In 1908, Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, became the first to identify umami, although many before him had incorporated glutamates in their cuisines. Those who had done so, however, had been unaware of the science behind it. Following Ikeda’s discovery, Japanese researchers identified multiple compounds that contribute to umami. Their research was not seriously taken into consideration until 1985, when scientists at the Umami International Symposium agreed that umami should be considered a basic taste.
Umami itself is a Japanese loanword that cannot be translated in any other language, but experts have described it as a savory and broth-like flavor that produces a mouthwatering effect on the tongue. It is also commonly defined as a “pleasant” taste, although such characterization falls within a small concentration range. Experts say that the umami taste varies according to the amount of salt. For example, some salty foods can provide the optimum umami taste, while those low in salt can still deliver similar results. Some foods that are particularly heavy in umami include fish, cured meats, Chinese cabbage, spinach, soy sauce and shrimp paste.
If you’re interested in learning more about umami, check out Umami: Food & Art Festival! The month-long festival currently takes place throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, and visitors can sample a variety of foods and drinks that showcase this unique taste.