Food cravings are a natural part of the human appetite. But sometimes the family sized bag of Tostitos or the Hershey’s kisses doesn’t cut it. Not all foods fall into the basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Chefs, home cooks and those of you who just like to eat, please join us on our enlightening journey of defining umami — the forgotten fifth taste.
While the elusive, often forgotten fifth taste is not a recent discovery, it was not officially recognized in the scientific community until the early 2000s when scientists identified the receptors for it. Foods heavy in the chemical compositions responsible for umami, like MSG, have been used across all cultures for much of history. The ancient Romans incorporated umami flavors into their garum, a fermented fish sauce. During medieval times, Arabs and Byzantines frequently used murri, a fermented barley condiment packed with umami chemicals. In the late 1800s, renowned chef Aguste Escoffier was serving meals combining umami flavors into his sweet, sour, salty and bitter dishes throughout his restaurants in Paris and London.
Flash forward, and the Umami Information Center or the UIC was established in 1982 as a study group to promote the research of umami by a group of nutritional scientists, food chemists, physiologists of taste and physiologists of the oral cavity. The members of UIC partook in international umami symposiums in Japan and elsewhere to exchange research regarding this newfangled taste.
Eventually, in 2002 scientists confirmed that our taste buds had receptors for umami specifically, and it was officially declared a fifth taste.
Ribonucleotides, glutamate, taste receptors … what exactly does any of this have to do with tasting umami? In elementary school, we all learned about the five senses which are processed in our brain with the help of our eyes, nose, ears, hands and mouth, respectively. However, unless you pursued a degree in biology, you were unlikely to have learned exactly how our senses work.
The sensation of taste can be broken down into two facets: somatic sensations and taste detectors. The somatic sensation of taste concerns the temperature and pressure of foods, specifically their textures.
“We have exquisite sensitivity for texture on our fingers and also in our mouths,” said Dr. Nirupa Chaudhari, a professor at the University of Miami who has conducted extensive biophysiology and neuroscience research. Chaudhari explains that the way we can feel whether a surface is smooth or rough with our hands is the same way we can tell whether we’re eating something smooth and creamy or hard and crunchy.
Taste detection is a little different since a large part of our sensory recognition is learned, meaning that a taste might not be recognizable to you from name alone. On your tongue, each taste bud has receptors, which interact with chemical compositions in food that translate into sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami in our brain.
The neural mechanisms responsible for tasting umami are not that different from tasting sweet or salty, so why is it so unknown to most people? Chaudhari unravels this phenomenon, explaining that “if you have not encountered a taste, it may be difficult to tune into a particular one.”
Part of being able to detect the taste umami is being familiar with the taste itself in the first place. The same way people who grow up eating particularly spicy cuisine develop a tolerance for it, people who grow up eating umami rich foods recognize it more in their everyday lives. Your oral cavity develops the ability to handle and enjoy different foods over time. Diets that include aged cheeses and meats, fermented fish sauces, miso, mushrooms, tomatoes and seaweeds build up your capacity to detect umami as an individual taste.
Monosodium glutamate or MSG is the chemical compound most commonly responsible for invoking flavors of umami. Characterized as savory sensations with a mouthwatering aftertaste, this compound interacts with our taste bud receptors which send information to our brain and deliver the umami message. Glutamate occurs naturally in many meats and vegetables, but often in conjunction with sodium, which is why umami is often confused with saltiness. In some cases, glutamate is paired with sodium and potassium which still produces that umami flavor but sidesteps away from the salt intensity.
The umami chemical powerhouse MSG can be purchased as a seasoning, but it is not advised to eat a spoonful of monosodium glutamate alone. So, how should you enjoy the umami flavor sensation? If you’ve eaten a bowl of spaghetti with a mountain of parmesan cheese on top or snagged a sushi roll from Sushi Maki in the Hurricane Food court, you have likely tasted umami without even realizing it.
“The first time I recall experiencing food with umami was having ramen as a kid,” says Julia Carey, a master’s of music student in the Frost School of Music. Carey explains she did not acquire an extensive taste palate until college, so much of her umami experience came from cheap stovetop ramens.
Now, when cooking at home, she likes to get more experimental, exploring umami flavors through Chinese, Thai and Korean cuisine and utilizing ingredients such as fish sauce and oyster sauces, as well as miso which is a fermented soybean paste. Miso and other soy based foods such as tofu, tempeh and soy sauce have increased glutamate content in their fermented forms, resulting in bigger umami flavors. They’re even known to lower blood cholesterol, improve fertility in women and decrease menopausal symptoms.
Other ways to include umami in your cooking could be as simple as arranging a charcuterie board of your favorite aged meats and cheeses. Cheeses that drive home the umami flavor punch include Parmesan-Reggiano, aged Gouda, Comte and Roquefort. As the cheeses age, their proteins are broken down into amino acids through proteolysis, which increases their levels of free glutamic acid.
Cured and aged meats with high levels of glutamate and ribonucleotide IMP include Iberico ham, prosciutto di Parma and smoked salmon. In addition, foods such as garlic, mushrooms both dried and cooked, tinned fish, seaweeds and kimchi all have high glutamate levels which equate to strong umami flavors.
However, if you would rather make a drink, green tea or tomato juice are optimal choices with high umami flavor. Green tea can be enjoyed as brewed loose-leaf tea — or her Instagram worthy cousin, matcha — and contains both glutamate and theanine which also invokes the umami flavor. Besides having high glutamic acid levels, tomatoes are also full of vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, folate and plant-based antioxidants.
And there are a lot of local options if you are looking to get out and test your tastebuds on umami flavors at restaurants.
“Some of my favorite foods since coming to Miami have been at Ohho Noodles Market and Moon Thai by campus,” says Angela Mesaros, a senior architecture student. “Getting to sit with my friends is always a great experience, especially with tasty noodle dishes.”
Other restaurants certain to give you an umami experience include Atchana’s Homegrown Thai Restaurant, Sapore Di Mare and Minty Z in Coconut Grove, as well as Baby Jane Cocktail House and Noodle Bar, Sexy Fish Miami and Hutong Miami in Brickell.
- 8 oz brewed loose-leaf green tea, cooled
- 1 oz black berry simple syrup
- 1 oz lemon juice
- Club soda
Mix first three ingredients and pour over ice. Top with club soda and garnish with mint leaf and lemon wedge.
Umami Grilled Cheese
- 2 slices sourdough bread
- Minced garlic
- 1 tbsp butter
- Sliced tomato
- Aged Gouda cheese
- Shredded parmesan cheese
Heat butter up a frying pan on medium heat. Spread garlic on one side of each piece of bread. Place bread in frying pan mayo side down, once butter is melted and foamy. Place shredded cheese on both pieces of bread and top one with tomato. Place the other slice of bread, cheese side down top of the other and flatten.
words_mary gorski. photo&design_lizzie kristal.
This article was published in Distraction’s Winter 2023 print issue.
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