They call it the fifth or sixth flavour and it was discovered at the beginning of the last century in Japan. Nowadays it is synonymous with “good” and “tasty” but it could also play a beneficial role for our health. Let’s find out what umami is, what foods contain it and everything you need to know about it.
I’m sure you’ve heard lots of time that a food has umami flavour but what is it? What do a mushroom soup with lots of grated Parmesan cheese and a plate of oriental sautéed noodles have in common? The umami flavour. A taste that until some time ago seemed to be the prerogative of Japanese or Chinese cuisine but which instead turned out to also belong to the Mediterranean tradition and its most famous ingredients. The umami-flavoured foods we use every day are many and, in addition to making the dishes tasty and tempting, they help us to stay healthy, according to researchers from Tōhoku University in Japan.
But let’s see what does umami mean
Defining umami is not easy. One could simply say that umami is a “good” flavour that makes you want to take another bite of the food that contains it. It is an additional flavour to sweet, salty, bitter, sour (hence the definition of “fifth flavour”) and fat (if this is also considered, umami becomes the “sixth flavour”). Historically, umami is the last to be discovered and recognised. The identification of umami took place in 1908 by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda and only in 2003 were discovered the receptors present in our mouth capable of decoding it.
Returning to what umami means, the Umami Information Center gives us this definition: “savory and pleasant taste that comes from glutamate and various ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which found naturally in meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.”
Well, I don’t know for you, but for me this definition is a little bit too complicated. So let’s find out, in simple terms, what umami is.
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What is umami?
The answer to this question is linked to a second question, namely: how is umami recognised? None of us wonder what sour taste is precisely because it is easy to recognise: just bite into a lemon to find out. Umami is an important flavour that often determines the success or failure of a dish but it is not easy to identify. Professor Ikeda isolated the chemical compound responsible for the umami flavour: sodium glutamate. This molecule helps to recognise umami: where there are high concentrations of sodium glutamate there is the umami flavour.
What are umami-flavoured foods?
Now that we know what umami is, finally we can practice cooking by tasting the foods that contain more sodium glutamate and therefore are more umami. For a complete overview you can refer to the Umami Information Center website which lists the most umami foods in the world divided by category. Within this database stand out cooked cow meat, ham, seafood, fermented fish products, aged cheeses such as Parmesan, seaweed, mushrooms, many vegetables such as tomato, carrot and asparagus, and nuts: peanuts, cashews and hazelnuts. These foods have in common the flavour and a “yummy deliciousness” that makes them tasty even unseasoned.
It must be said, however, that the first experience with the umami flavour occurs, for many of us, well before the moment when you order a mixed platter at the restaurant. When? With the first breast milk feed. Indeed, perhaps even earlier because it seems that the umami flavour is present even in the amniotic fluid.
Why umami is good for our health?
The umami flavour has long been the victim of a prejudice that sees monosodium glutamate, used to flavour dishes, the protagonist of the “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. An alleged disease widespread in oriental restaurants guilty, according to the most conservative America of the 1960s-1970s, of using excessive quantities of monosodium glutamate.
Not only has the existence of the syndrome been scientifically disproved but, according to the evaluation of food additives by the FAO (Food and Drugs Organization) and WHO (World Health Organization), glutamate is not harmful and is not dangerous. But let’s not get confused: now we are referring to monosodium glutamate, a synthetic chemical product used as a powder additive and not to glutamate naturally present in foods. There is a certain difference between a hamburger and tomato sandwich and a packet of packed noodles: the second probably contains E620 and E625 (monosodium glutamate added as an additive and flavour enhancer), the first does not: it releases an umami flavour due to its exclusive merit of the raw material.
It seems that the substances that make an umami food are good for our health. This was discovered by a pool of scientists from Tōhoku University demonstrating that insensitivity to the umami flavour causes inappetence, reduced salivation, weight loss and, consequently, an overall deterioration in health especially in elderly or convalescent subjects.
Not only that, the merit of introducing traditional Japanese cuisine into the UNESCO intangible heritage goes precisely to umami: it is the umami flavour of the healthy but tasty ingredients of this cuisine that prevails over the excessive use of animal fats.
How to make umami recipes
First of all: choose naturally umami ingredients. But there are also condiments capable of adding flavour and richness to any dish. At the top of the list we find soy sauce and soy or rice miso, fermented foods of Asian origin. Then fish sauce, Worcester sauce and the Australian Marmite and Vegemite, from the Mediterranean cuisinea sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, triple tomato paste, chopped olives, capers and dried tomatoes.
Have you experienced umami flavour? Do you like it?