For many years, there were four recognized basic taste groups: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami, or the "fifth taste," is a relatively recent discovery. Officially named as a separate taste in the 1980s, umami is true savoriness. Breast milk is high in the amino acids that deliver the taste of umami, which may prime a person to seek out this flavor profile throughout life.
Umami translates to "pleasant savory taste" and has been described as brothy or meaty. You can taste umami in foods that contain a high level of the amino acid glutamate, like Parmesan cheese, seaweed, miso, and mushrooms.
Glutamate has a complex, elemental taste. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is often added to foods to add an umami flavor. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has designated MSG as a safe ingredient, causing only minor adverse events, such as headaches or nausea, in a very small percentage of consumers.
Umami has been described as having a mild but lasting aftertaste associated with salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof, and the back of the mouth. It is not considered desirable as a standalone flavor but adds complexity when paired with other tastes.
History of Umami
Umami means "pleasant savory taste" in Japanese. The popularity of umami has been rising since the 1980s when research about the fifth basic taste began to increase.
In 1985, the Umami International Symposium held in Hawaii determined umami was the scientific term for this fifth taste. In order for it to stand on its own, it had to meet certain criteria. Researchers proved that umami was not produced by any combination of other basic tastes, but was an independent taste. It also has its own specific receptor for its taste.
The use of glutamate in cooking has a long history. Fermented fish sauces, which are rich in glutamate, were used widely in ancient Rome. Glutamate-rich fermented barley sauces were used in medieval Byzantine and Arab cuisine, and fermented fish sauces and soy sauces have histories going back to the third century in China.
Umami has become popular as a flavor with food manufacturers trying to improve the taste of low-sodium offerings. Chefs enrich their cuisine by creating "umami bombs," which are dishes made of several umami ingredients like fish sauce, mushrooms, oysters, and dry-cured hams. Some suggest that umami may be the reason for the popularity of ketchup.
The umami taste can be found widely in a great number of foods, so you do not have to go to a specialty store to enjoy the taste of umami. Foods with umami elements that can be found at your local grocery store include beef, pork, gravies, broths, tomatoes, cheese, and soy sauce. Fermented foods like fish sauce and miso are especially high in umami flavor.
Some umami-rich foods, such as kombu seaweed or the yeast extracts Vegemite or Marmite, may be a little harder to find if you do not have a specialty market nearby.
US Food & Drug Administration. Questions and answers on monosodium glutamate (MSG). Updated January 4, 2018.
Hartley IE, Liem DG, Keast R. Umami as an 'Alimentary' Taste. A New Perspective on Taste Classification. Nutrients. 2019;11(1). doi:10.3390/nu11010182