Origins & Information - (A-Z) Umami

Remember that diagram of the tongue (like above) you saw when you were in elementary school that told you where the mouth's taste buds are located and which areas made you taste which tastes? Well, if no one told you after that first lesson, it was all a LIE! That's right - the taste receptors on the tongue are not independent of each other; they all have the capability of tasting various flavors. The theory first emerged in 1901 but was disproved in 1974. Unfortunately, the concept still pervades the school system. I remember learning this and I was definitely born after 1974!

Okay, ready to be further mind-blown? The four tastes that you learned - sweet, salty, bitter, and sour - are not the only ones around. There is a fifth and it is called "umami" after the Japanese word umami (うま味). It's a taste that is a bit difficult to describe but the easiest way to note it is to call it the "savory" taste. Though it has only been a recent discovery in the Western World (recognized officially at the first Umami International Symposium in 1985), it has been known to plenty of cooks before, particularly the Japanese and Chinese. Identified over 100 years ago, this is a taste comprised of the combination of glutamates and nucleotides. The much-hated monosodium glutamate (MSG) that received a lot of flak in Asian-American cuisine possesses the makings for enhancing the umami in a dish. Discovered in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda who was exploring why broths with kombu seaweed tasted good and named for its translation in Japanese as "deliciousness," umami became the key reason for his creation of MSG. Like sugar describes sweet and salt describes salty, MSG describes umami. Though recognized officially in 1985, it wasn't until 2000 when scientists in Miami found specific receptors that only picked up on glutamate that disbelievers agreed that umami was a taste.

The interesting thing about umami is that it must be paired off with other flavors its full potential to shine. Inducing salivation and being stronger with saltiness, it can be found in many of our savory dishes. Thinking of broths, tomatoes, cheeses, soy sauce, and meats, you can imagine what this flavor is. It is a bit hard to pinpoint when had because of its complexity and richness. Glutamate is an important building block of protein so it's not a surprise to find high concentrations in protein-rich foods. When glutamate is combined with ribonucleotides, the taste intensity heightens in food. So the next time you describe something as being savory, you are tasting a food with high levels of umami! For more information, check out

This post is part of an A-Z series I am running for my blog category "Origins and Information" while I am in Vietnam with my family for July. Many of the posts in the series answer questions that were posed by friends/readers. If y'all enjoy the series, I will gladly run another in the future!