Sweet, sour, salty, and bitter– These are the four familiarly recognized tastes that provide flavor to our foods and arouse our taste buds. However, did you know there’s actually a fifth taste? Umami (oo-mah-me) is a Japanese derived word used to describe the savory, almost “meaty” taste given off from the amino acid known as glutamate as well as naturally occurring ribonucleotides.
While you may not immediately recognize umami as your taste buds dissect the food within your mouth, studies have shown that humans contain special receptors on the tongue for glutamate and its related compounds, making umami our “5th taste”.
We actually encounter the umami taste from the very beginning of birth. Glutamate is the most common amino acid in human breast milk, accounting for over half the entire free amino acid content within the milk. Human breast milk also contains another umami constituent known as nucleotide inocinate.
As we move away from breast milk, there are plenty of other places where the umami taste can be found. Parmesan cheese is particularly rich in umami, as it contains between 1200-1600 mg/100g. Looking at a large piece of Parmesan cheese, you’ll notice small white crystals that have formed on the outside. These are derived from glutamate.
Other umami-rich sources include seaweed, particularly nori, and kombu, a type of algae frequently used in Japanese cooking. Animal sources of umami include beef, pork, chicken, tuna, anchovies, and clams. Umami is also profuse in tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, and potatoes.
The utilization of umami foods is particularly beneficial in enriching stocks, soups, and sauces, adding a rich, savory flavor. The next time you have spaghetti, try adding some sliced sauteed mushrooms to tomato sauce to enhance the flavors of your meal. Notice if you can detect the umami flavor. It may be hard at first since we are conditioned only to detect sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, but with time you’ll probably be able to notice that savory umami taste that lies within various foods.