With the current hullabaloo for umami and its promises of instant flavour, it may be surprising that this foodie buzzword entered the mainstream not all that long ago as the “fifth taste”.
Discovered in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, it has taken almost 100 years for the global recognition of “umami” – a term coined by Professor Ikeda himself: loosely translated as “delicious taste”.
At its core, umami relates to the presence of the naturally occurring amino acid glutamate and the distinct flavour it lends to foods. Commonly found in fish, meats, and some vegetables such as tomatoes and spinach, glutamate is also found in fermented and aged products such as soy sauce, fish sauce, sauerkraut, pickles and miso – giving these foods their characteristic savouriness and palatability. Having a high level of umami in a dish is believed to explain why some dishes are technically “tastier” than others, because the glutamate levels are present are higher and are activating more taste buds.
Unlike the other basic tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, and salty), there is no real consensus on a definition of umami’s distinct taste. Studies suggest a whole range of descriptions ranging from “mellow” to “delicate and subtle”, while Raymond Blanc considers umami to be “layer upon layer of velvet and silkiness”.
As such, theories suggest our receptiveness to umami stems from glutamate signalling the presence of proteins – crucial in the survival and continued development of early humans.
In 1985, the taste of umami being attributed to glutamates achieved scientific recognition at the first Umami International Symposium in Hawaii, even though its existence continued to be very much debated and contested at the time.
However, when a paper published in 2002 finally provided the evidence for umami taste receptors on the human tongue, this so-called “Fifth Taste” finally had the scientific as well as existing cultural leverage it needed to be launched into the public eye.
Now, in the short space of a few years, food magazines and celebrity chefs have also embraced the term, further perpetuating its popularity and significance in modern food culture.
For the health-conscious who may be wary of the excess salt found in many store-bought sauces and dips, miso can quickly become your go-to addition to any dish, broth, and even to your salad dressings. Coupled with umami’s ability to promote salivation, the end-result is literally mouth-watering, complete with a lower salt content for the same satiety and palatability – perfect for low-fat and low-salt diets, without sacrificing any flavour.
Miso is definitely no stranger to umami; from a scientific standpoint, miso soup shares a similar, near-identical glutamate content with chicken consommé and various other Western-style broths. However, rather than relying on animal fats for depth and complexity of flavour, miso’s moreish taste is brought about entirely by the fermentation process – resulting in flavours comparable to the richness of beef and chicken stocks.
For those looking to introduce an alternative umami-rich ingredient to their cooking that is both vegan and vegetarian-friendly, stock up on our miso cooking pastes online today! We also have an instant miso soup range for on-the-go umami, and even a Miso Tasty cookbook full of incredible recipes for your umami fix at home!