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Exploring Umami: The Fifth Taste Sensation

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.


A Mystery

For as long as humans have been cooking and enjoying food, we have recognized that there are four distinct tastes—sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. But there has always been something else, an “I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it” illusive sensation. The Greeks and Romans craved it and liberally doused their foods in the fermented anchovy sauce garum. Miso was the magic condiment in Asia. My Manchester family members have always loved their Marmite, and if Costco had been in business when my Dad was alive, he would have purchased ketchup there in massive quantities.

It’s that alluring—but what is “it?” That crave-worthy flavor is the 5th taste sensation known as umami.

Umami is . . . the quasi-secret heart and soul of every braise, stew, and soup.

— Michael Pollan, American author, journalist, and activist

A Famous French Chef Almost Found It

Antonin Carême is regarded as the creator of French haute cuisine. It was he who devised the concept of four “mother” sauces—béchamel, velouté, Espagnole, and allemande. Part genius and part fanatic, Carême cooked for the rich and famous of his time and each display was astounding, flamboyant, and one could say even ostentatious. (For a feast celebrating the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia’s visit to George IV’s Brighton Pavilion, the menu featured no less than 120 different dishes, including eight different soups, 40 entrees, and 32 desserts).

But he is not the French chef of whom I speak. I had to give you that prologue so that I could share with you the real story. 25 years after the death of Carême, Auguste Escoffier began his cooking career as a 12-year-old apprentice in his uncle’s restaurant, Le Restaurant Francais, in Nice. At the age of 19, he moved to Paris where he was employed at Le Petit Moulin Rouge as an apprentice roast cook. However, that career was cut short when, seven months later, he was called to active military duty. He was given the position of Chef de Cuisine for the army.

Following his military service, Escoffier returned to work at Le Petit Moulin Rouge until 1878. Extravagant dinners with outrageous garnishes were replaced with simple, nutritious foods. It was at this time that Escoffier revised Carême’s mother sauces—allemande was removed, sauce tomat (tomato) and hollandaise were added. And a fundamental part of these sauces, the element that gave them their luscious flavor was veal stock; it had those rich savory flavors we crave, but . . . umami was not in Escoffier’s vocabulary.

It Was in the Dashi

Fast forward to 1907. Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, was having dinner with his family. His daily bowl of dashi soup was different from the usual; this particular bowl was more savory, more delicious. Being a scientist, he was compelled to discover what made this dashi different from all of the rest. (Trust me, all scientists are like this. My husband is one as well—it’s in their DNA.) Ikeda poked into the bowl with his chopsticks, slowly stirring and peering into the broth. The cook had added kombu. With that ah-ha moment, Ikeda took to his laboratory to gain a better understanding of that deliciousness. By the way, the Japanese word for “deliciousness” is umami.

Ikeda’s examined the components of that kombu at a molecular level and, in 1908, isolated the chemical compound that gives the world that savory sensation—glutamic acid, or glutamate.

There's More Than One

Glutamate exists in two forms. There are “bound” glutamates, a part of the proteins in many of the foods we eat. These are digested and absorbed slowly. However, there are also “free” glutamates—these are food additives (monosodium glutamate or MSG), unattached to proteins. Unlike their bound cousins, they are digested quickly and can be the source of negative reactions. In 1968, the expression "Chinese restaurant syndrome" was coined as shorthand for the headaches, skin flushing, and sweating attributed to the addition of MSG to foods.

It is a bitter irony that in China of all places, where chefs have spent centuries developing the most sophisticated culinary techniques, this mass-produced white powder should have been given the name wei jing, "the essence of flavor."

— Fuchsia Dunlop, author of the Sichuan cookbook

What's the Big Deal About Umami?

I can hear you asking that question. If you want to add a real pop of flavor to your foods, surprise your spouse, gobsmack your guests, or wow your co-workers at the next potluck, you want to learn how to add umami to your foods.

If you are vegetarian, you don't have to give up the rich, savory flavors that are associated with meats.

First, let's look at the list of the most common umami-loaded foods. The higher the milligrams of glutamate, the more umami punch delivered.

Milligrams of Glutamate in Common Foods

Based on 100 grams of food

Mackerel = 215

Oyster sauce = 900

Kimchi = 240

Dried shiitake = 1,060

Tomatoes = 246

Soy sauce = 1,264

Grape juice = 258

Roquefort cheese = 1,280

Tomato juice = 260

Fish sauce = 1,383

Cured ham = 337

Vegemite = 1,430

Anchovies = 630

Parmesan = 1,680

Walnuts = 658

Marmite = 1,960

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But Wait, There's More

In the May/June 2012 issue of Cook's Illustrated, there was an article devoted to the science of food, specifically how the combination of specific ingredients creates a supremely satisfying flavor boost. They explained that when foods rich in glutamates (the list above) are paired with foods containing nucleotides (the list shown below), the umami flavor is enhanced. Don't worry; I won't make you search for your Chemistry 101 textbook. Here's a short list of nucleotide-rich foods:

  • shrimp
  • steak
  • chicken
  • lentils
  • asparagus
  • spinach
  • mushrooms
  • anchovies (yes, I know that they contain glutamates, too)

Let's Start Cooking

There are so many possible combinations of these wonderful foods; the only limit is your imagination. To get you started, we'll pair each nucleotide-rich food (shrimp, steak, etc.) with one or more ingredients from the umami (glutamate) chart to create an amazing flavor punch.

Honey Walnut Shrimp

Honey Walnut Shrimp

Honey Walnut Shrimp

In this first recipe, we pair shrimp (nucleotide) with walnuts (an umami food). Amy has created a copycat of the P.F. Chang honey walnut shrimp, but hers is even better. Instead of deep-frying, she coats the shrimp in cornstarch for a crisp exterior and quickly browns them in a shallow saute pan. Total time to prep and cook is only 30 minutes so this could be a stunning meal for company or easy and quick enough to make for a weeknight family meal.

Filet Mignon with Roquefort

Filet Mignon with Roquefort

Filet Mignon With Roquefort

The next item on our list is steak. The cooking experts at Good Housekeeping magazine have upgraded the typical steakhouse fare from the ubiquitous ribeye to a petite filet mignon with Roquefort. What this cut lacks in size it gives back in buttery tenderness.

The addition of Roquefort will enhance the savory beefy flavor; another bonus is that Roquefort is an assertive blue cheese, and a little goes a long way, so you can enjoy this luscious meal without guilt. One serving is only 205 calories!

Filipino Chicken Adobo

Filipino Chicken Adobo

Filipino Chicken Adobo

Chicken and soy sauce just seem to go together, like peanut butter and jelly. Teriyaki chicken is the obvious pick, but I've already given you a sweet-savory meal with the honey-walnut shrimp above.

This meal from the blog Vikalinka by Julie Frey will offer you a pleasant surprise. It's chicken braised in pungent vinegar and soy sauce with an addition of garlic and ginger. Julie spent one year in the Philippines when she was in her early twenties and she learned this dish from a local friend, so this Filipino chicken adobo is as authentic as it gets.

Spicy Tomato Sauce With Lentils and Baked Eggs

Spicy Tomato Sauce With Lentils and Baked Eggs

Spicy Tomato Sauce With Lentils and Eggs

It's time for a vegetarian dish, and this one gives us a double-punch of umami. Lentils (from the nucleotide list) are paired with canned tomatoes and eggs. Eggs are not high in glutamates (they would score 46 on the list), but the yolks lend a silky luxuriousness to each forkful of this spicy tomato sauce with lentils and eggs.

Ham, Asparagus, and Mushroom Quiche with Cheddar

Ham, Asparagus, and Mushroom Quiche with Cheddar

Ham Asparagus and Mushroom Quiche

We're ramping up the umami components in this dish. When considering what to pair with asparagus, my first thought was Cheddar cheese. A Google search provided lots of great ideas—omelets, a rich cheese soup, chicken breasts stuffed with asparagus and cheese, and a colorful (but unusual-sounding) quickbread from the U.K. filled with asparagus, sundried tomatoes, Cheddar, and black olives.

This ham, asparagus, and mushroom quiche by Amy (The Blond Cook) is bursting with umami flavors from not only Cheddar cheese but ham and mushrooms as well.

Spinach Artichoke Parmesan Dip

Spinach Artichoke Parmesan Dip

Spinach Artichoke Parmesan Dip

I don't know if this appetizer is popular in other parts of the world but in the United States, spinach artichoke dip can be found on just about every bar or pub menu. The creamy salty flavor is a perfect foil for beer. We tell ourselves that it's "healthy" because it contains vegetables. It's so popular, in fact, that my Google search had 5,530,000 hits and tubs of it are available at Costco (the place where anything and everything can be purchased in massive quantities).

Gloria's recipe is easy to whip together and she shares how to serve it either hot or cold. There's also a recipe for toasted garlic bread slices which are the perfect "dipper."

Pesto and Olive-Stuffed Mushrooms

Pesto and Olive-Stuffed Mushrooms

Pesto and Olive-Stuffed Mushrooms

Evi is a very talented food photographer and blogger who enjoys sharing her tasty plant-based recipes. Black olives, walnuts, garlic, and olive oil are the basis for the rich pesto. She mounds it in mushrooms caps and bakes them until the filling is heated through and the mushrooms are firm.

These pesto-filled mushrooms would make a wonderful appetizer or a light meal with a tossed green salad.

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca

With our final recipe, we pull out all the stops. This dish is a umami bomb, filled with olives, capers, anchovies, and tomato. According to the website Pasta Recipes by Italians:

"Some believe that [the original dish] was a sauce created by a restaurant owner who had many guests come to his restaurant to eat late one night as he was about to close. He didn't have enough of any one ingredient to make a meal for them all so he took everything out of his kitchen and put it together to make this legendary Italian pasta sauce."

That seems to be the case with many popular dishes—a happy accident becomes a magical assembly of ingredients to make an unforgettable meal. This version of spaghetti puttanesca is by Nina Capri and was reprinted by the website Great Italian Chefs.


© 2019 Linda Lum

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