While it’s often regarded as the mysterious fifth taste, umami is something with which we have a long connection. Science tells us our first encounter is in breast milk. Indeed, mother’s milk contains as much umami as rich broth.
Now, although we don’t consciously remember guzzling on umami at such a tender age, this probably explains why we kept crying for our mother’s milk. Besides being hungry, of course, that was our first idea of “delicious.”
My own first exposure to the term came I started my wine studies in the United States. During a wine-tasting session when we were discussing flavors, our instructor described one as having an umami taste.
Seeing my furrowed brow, our wine instructor explained umami as being “delicious” or “savory.” I didn’t agree 100 percent with this description but it appeared that there were simply no better words to translate the taste into English. (If you do know of any, send me an e-mail at the above address!)
While English may not have a taste for this fifth basic taste, in Chinese we do have an exact word. In Chinese, umami is xian (鲜).
Many Chinese never give much thought to explaining umami/xian, because it’s so natural in our lives — as readily accepted as sour, sweet, bitter and salty, the other four basic tastes.
And it’s really difficult to “teach” umami, because perceiving flavors is more akin to a baby learning language rather than school education.
We can’t describe “sweetness” either, but we all know what it tastes like. We become familiar with flavors through tasting, comparing and remembering.
Thinking back, the way I consciously learned about umami flavor was by copying my mom’s reaction to “umami-ful” (a fine word!) foods such as broth stock, fish, shellfish, shrimps, cured meats and mushrooms.
If chicken broth was just right, my mom would say: “Hao xian ah!” (好鲜啊) — “Soooo umami!”
Umami itself is a Japanese loanword, which may lead my fellow Chinese to indignantly ask why aren’t we using xian instead? (And especially as we’ve probably known this term way longer than our neighbors.)
It all comes down to science and a Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda from the Tokyo Imperial University, who first scientifically identified the flavor in 1908.
He noticed that the taste of kombu dashi — the basic seaweed broth in Japanese cuisine — was distinct from sweet, sour, bitter and salty, and that glutamate from the kombu seaweed was responsible for this.
He combined the words umai (うまい) and mi (味) — “delicious” and “taste” — to describe this fifth taste.
Western cuisines didn’t describe or even really pay attention to umami flavor until about 20 years ago. But that’s not to say that umami didn’t exist in Western cuisines. In fact, staple ingredients in Italian food, such as tomatoes, mushrooms, cured meat and certain cheeses — Parmesan, for example — are all “umami bombs.”
While many people are unsure of what umami means, most have heard of MSG — monosodium glutamate — the sodium salt of glutamic acid. As well as being found in ingredients already mentioned it’s present in potatoes and other vegetables and some fruit.
There’s a man-made duplicate of MSG, commonly known as weijing (味 精）or weisu (味素）in China, first prepared by Ikeda in his umami studies.
MSG has been notorious for decades in the food industry — especially in Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisines — where it’s used as a flavor enhancer to intensify the overall taste of food.
Its notoriety stems from the popular belief in the US and elsewhere that large doses can cause headaches and other feelings of discomfort.
However, despite the bad reputation, MSG was generally recognized as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration back in the 1990s.
Whatever its form, umami’s most important role is that it works with the other four flavors — balances, blends and rounds the perception of other tastes, taking flavors to the next level.
Sweet and salty are umami’s best buddies. And that’s probably the reason behind the prevalence in Asian cuisines of umami-enhancing condiments such as soy sauce, Japanese miso and Korean gochujang — spicy fermented bean paste — and fish sauce from southeast Asia .
Fermentation generally produces large amounts of umami-tasting amino acids. Soy sauce, miso and gochujang are all made from fermented soybeans, while in Vietnam, fish sauce is extracted from fermented anchovies.
These are all used as alternatives to salt, and all have a hint of sweetness.
One trick I was taught by my mom is to add a little bit of sugar in a dish to “raise” the umami level. And they do complement each very well.
For those of you who have concerns about too much salt in your diet, food tastes better with less salt when umami is present in a dish. So the more umami-ful ingredients you use, the less salt you’re likely to want.
In the US, fine-dining restaurants and celebrity chefs now incorporate more and more of these Asian umami-packed condiments.
All this writing about umami is thirsty work. So what drinks best complement it?
Well, wine pairing with umami can be tricky as umami in food will increase the perception of bitterness and acidity on our taste buds and lower the sweetness and fruit flavors.
It also clashes with the high tannin content in red wines, making those taste metallic — or even rusty. Yuk.
It’s controversial whether umami actually exists in wine. I do taste umami in some wines, and assume it’s from the fermentation and the yeast — a source of amino acids.
This is especially noticeable when a wine has been aged “sur lie” — a technique in which wine is aged in the barrel with dead yeast, creating a rich, creamy texture, with more depth.
For example, Champagne, Chardonnay and Muscadet from the Loire Valley are usually aged sur lie, creating a mouth-watering “umami-like” flavor.
But in my opinion, sherry — the fortified wine from Jerez in Spain — is the perfect pairing for umami food.
Sherries have a long-lasting finish, with a hint of nuts and an oily sensation over the tongue, very compatible with the “brothy” taste of umami.
They range from dry Fino and Manzanilla, to the more oxidated Oloroso, to sweet Jerez Dulce and cream sherry.
Sherry is a neglected treasure of the wine world. Its rich, umami flavors, the nutty finish, and hint of sweetness are similar to aged Chinese grain liquors or rice wines, making it a wonderful fit with the Chinese palate.
Looking at my tasting notes on Lustau Manzanilla sherry, I wrote: salty, ocean minerality, Japanese rice cracker (with soy sauce), “drunk mudsnail” (a specialty of my grandparents hometown in Jiangsu Province), umami.
Some of my wine classmates were not very fond of these flavors, but to my Asian palate, these familiar tastes were like newly unearthed gems.
My top tip? Try Champagne, Muscadet or Fino and Manzanilla sherry with oysters to create the ultimate umami bomb. Savor it!
Umami for all tastes in Shanghai
A Korean restaurant opened by Michelin thee-star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose wife is Korean. Appetizers combine Korean ingredients with French culinary techniques, while hot dishes feature authentic Korean flavor — and plenty umami. A highlights is the rice cracker-crusted tuna with gochujang emulsion.
Address: 2/F, 3 Zhongshan Rd E1
This art-inspired restaurant serves fusion cuisine and is known for its mezzanine style of dining, with an additional course served between the appetizer and main course. A must-try signature dish is tuna tataki on garden salad with miso dressing.