Mmm! Scientist Explains “Umami,” the Mysterious “Fifth Taste”

By Will Sullivan
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Ask serious gourmets or gourmands what humans can taste, and they’ll tell you: “Salt, Sweet, Sour and Bitter… oh, yeah, and then there’s ‘Umami,’ but it’s a mystery, no one really knows what it is…”

“Umami” is Japanese for “delicious savory,” and until recently, it was a mysterious food “taste” or maybe sensation, that was largely unqualifiable, and certainly unquantifiable. The great French chef Escoffier first postulated this “fifth taste,” although it’s named in honor of a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, who discovered in 1908 that the amino acid glutamate (as in monosodium glutamate, MSG) added something…extra…to seaweed soup.

Now, a century later, a Chinese scientist in San Diego has discovered that the effect of umami is a binary process—i.e. it takes two chemicals, in tandem, for the process to occur on your tongue; both molecules together trigger unique taste-bud receptors that don’t otherwise respond to anything else. What’s cool about this is that while MSG works, it also causes side effects in a small percentage of people—headaches, dizziness, and it may cause neurological disorders—so this research may show the path towards developing new, safe “umami” flavor enhancers.

[Via Wired]

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18 Responses to Mmm! Scientist Explains “Umami,” the Mysterious “Fifth Taste”

  1. Oishii is Japanese for delicious, umami is Japanese for savory. Next time, do the 5 seconds of extra work using an online translator, or just go buy a Japanese-English dictionary.

  2. Oishii is Japanese for delicious, umami is Japanese for savory. Next time, do the 5 seconds of extra work using an online translator, or just go buy a Japanese-English dictionary.

  3. I find nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) works much like MSG as a flavor enhancer albeit with a distinct pong (in the Brit sense) when it’s coming out of the bottle.

  4. I find nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) works much like MSG as a flavor enhancer albeit with a distinct pong (in the Brit sense) when it's coming out of the bottle.

  5. The reason I chose “delicious” is that this is often used as an English synonym (one in a series, usually, as it does not, in any event, translate directly with one simple English word)…as is “savory,” of course. The problem with “savory,” in English, is that this is often seen as the antithesis of “sweet,” when describing dishes in a simple, binary way, at least by non-foodies. As chefs will tell you, sweet dishes can exhibit “umami,” too. Here’s a quote from World Wide Words:

    Both the word and the concept are Japanese, and in Japan are of some antiquity. Umami is hard to translate, to judge by the number of English words that have been suggested as equivalents, such as savoury, essence, pungent, deliciousness, and meaty. It’s sometimes associated with a feeling of perfect quality in a taste, or of some special emotional circumstance in which a taste is experienced. It is also said to involve all the senses, not just that of taste. There’s more than a suggestion of a spiritual or mystical quality about the word.

    Again, simple one-word translations don’t really suffice…and to avoid delimiting my definition/translation to “merely savory,” in a short post, I chose “delicious.”

    Thanks for your comment!

    P.S. BlogDog: I, too, like nuac mam…but it’s a little too “pong-y” (great word, btw!) for me, too…might have something to do with the fish being buried in the humid jungle soil for a few months, dunno! I just hold my nose for a bit! “A little ‘umami’ goes a long way, sometimes!” ;)

  6. The reason I chose "delicious" is that this is often used as an English synonym (one in a series, usually, as it does not, in any event, translate directly with one simple English word)…as is "savory," of course. The problem with "savory," in English, is that this is often seen as the antithesis of "sweet," when describing dishes in a simple, binary way, at least by non-foodies. As chefs will tell you, sweet dishes can exhibit "umami," too. Here's a quote from World Wide Words:

    Both the word and the concept are Japanese, and in Japan are of some antiquity. Umami is hard to translate, to judge by the number of English words that have been suggested as equivalents, such as savoury, essence, pungent, deliciousness, and meaty. It’s sometimes associated with a feeling of perfect quality in a taste, or of some special emotional circumstance in which a taste is experienced. It is also said to involve all the senses, not just that of taste. There’s more than a suggestion of a spiritual or mystical quality about the word.

    Again, simple one-word translations don't really suffice…and to avoid delimiting my definition/translation to "merely savory," in a short post, I chose "delicious."

    Thanks for your comment!

    P.S. BlogDog: I, too, like nuac mam…but it's a little too "pong-y" (great word, btw!) for me, too…might have something to do with the fish being buried in the humid jungle soil for a few months, dunno! I just hold my nose for a bit! "A little 'umami' goes a long way, sometimes!" ;)

  7. Interesting! So, if I’m trying to avoid MSG and/or don’t have access to the types of Asian dishes you reference, is there another, readily-available food item I could try to give me a clearer sense of Umami? I mean, I can easily try specific foods to experience the other 4 senses, is there one to best illustrate this one?

  8. Interesting! So, if I'm trying to avoid MSG and/or don't have access to the types of Asian dishes you reference, is there another, readily-available food item I could try to give me a clearer sense of Umami? I mean, I can easily try specific foods to experience the other 4 senses, is there one to best illustrate this one?

  9. Rob O…um, that’s the mystery! And, the high art!

    But, there are a few guidelines that may help. Firstly, putting aside umami itself, for a moment, one really beneficial thing you can do to maximize flavor and get away from the “one note” taste that quickly can become…”boring” at best, “too rich,” or “sickly sweet,” or perhaps, to go the other way, “bland,” at worst, is to maximize the types of taste buds that are firing, in a given dish, and among complementary dishes on the plate (and wines), etc. The ubiquitous “SweeTarts” of childhood are a good example, as is Key Lime Pie…perhaps with a little salt added to the crust and/or filling. Again, think firstly of “Sweet, Salt, Bitter, Sour.” Even in my Cream of Wild Mushroom and Truffle Soup, I add a squeeze of lime juice and a dash of sugar (usually something less refined, so therefore more complex, than pure white sugar, sucrose) to the pot–under the threshold of detectability, tastewise, but still enough to get the “whole mouth” feel/taste going, covertly. Similarly, even really sweet dishes deserve a dash of salt and maybe sour–again, even if under the threshold of detectability. Al umami is, btw, is an extension of this philosophy of getting all the taste buds excited. An experiment for you:

    Macerate some berries–say, strawberries for your first try–in a mixture of quite a bit of sugar (DO try white, at first, and then later maybe a mixture of 3/4 white to 1/4 light brown), a good drizzle of balsamic vinegar, just a touch of finely-ground sea salt, and a little more cracked black pepper (a little coarse is O.K.) than the salt…for maybe an hour or two. Then serve over nonfat vanilla yogurt, to which you’ve added a touch of extra vanilla, and a tiny bit of sugar and salt. It’s totally nonfat, but very rich, creamy, full of that “whole mouth” feel, as all the tastebuds are firing–and the berries really “pop!” against the background of everything else, becoming “Super-berries!” Kind of a “blanc mange” for the health conscious…and you’ll never know it’s nonfat. Yes, don’t be afraid of the black pepper! But, make sure it’s fresh.

    Regarding umami, as mentioned in the post, glutamate is an amino acid–amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. So, umami is often linked to dishes rich in protein. You’ve been “doing umami” for a long time, and probably don’t even know it! Btw, protein comes from many sources other than meat, of course, so: experiment! Adding pan juices from a roast to your cheesecake recipe, therefore, probably isn’t necessary…but, hmmm…food for thought! (Kidding…)

    Also, do a google for umami and read a few pages of definitions and wikis, to get a better feel for what you’re trying to experience. If you’ve had immensely satisfying dishes that seem to have a lot going on, yet are very balanced, with no “one note” predominating, but, rather, exhibiting a symphony of flavors, you’re getting there! (Even a “string quartet,” for simple dishes, can be sublime!) Also, I don’t use MSG or other flavor enhancers…I like to experiment with natural foods, themselves…don’t be afraid to experiment. Cooking is a little like chemistry lab, and you get to eat your experiments, in the end!; how fun is that?! Hope this help, a little! :)

    Will

  10. Some more “food for thought”:

    I mention sugars that are less refined than white sugar–e.g. light brown sugar,” above, because they, in themselves, are more complex, less “one note,” than fully-refined cane sugar. Also, look in your sugar aisle for “unrefined” cane sugar. It’s relatively expensive (per lb.) than cane sugar, probably only comes in teaspoon-size packets, but is great for adding some complexity to savory dishes.

    Similarly, I mention sea salt, above, because there are a lot more salts other than sodium salt in sea water, from which it’s derived…and trace minerals, etc., that add to the complexity of the dish you’re adding it to. Again, the goal is to add complexity, in whatever way possible, even if it’s under the level of strict detectability. Gives your brain more to “chew on!”

  11. Rob O…um, that's the mystery! And, the high art!

    But, there are a few guidelines that may help. Firstly, putting aside umami itself, for a moment, one really beneficial thing you can do to maximize flavor and get away from the "one note" taste that quickly can become…"boring" at best, "too rich," or "sickly sweet," or perhaps, to go the other way, "bland," at worst, is to maximize the types of taste buds that are firing, in a given dish, and among complementary dishes on the plate (and wines), etc. The ubiquitous "SweeTarts" of childhood are a good example, as is Key Lime Pie…perhaps with a little salt added to the crust and/or filling. Again, think firstly of "Sweet, Salt, Bitter, Sour." Even in my Cream of Wild Mushroom and Truffle Soup, I add a squeeze of lime juice and a dash of sugar (usually something less refined, so therefore more complex, than pure white sugar, sucrose) to the pot–under the threshold of detectability, tastewise, but still enough to get the "whole mouth" feel/taste going, covertly. Similarly, even really sweet dishes deserve a dash of salt and maybe sour–again, even if under the threshold of detectability. Al umami is, btw, is an extension of this philosophy of getting all the taste buds excited. An experiment for you:

    Macerate some berries–say, strawberries for your first try–in a mixture of quite a bit of sugar (DO try white, at first, and then later maybe a mixture of 3/4 white to 1/4 light brown), a good drizzle of balsamic vinegar, just a touch of finely-ground sea salt, and a little more cracked black pepper (a little coarse is O.K.) than the salt…for maybe an hour or two. Then serve over nonfat vanilla yogurt, to which you've added a touch of extra vanilla, and a tiny bit of sugar and salt. It's totally nonfat, but very rich, creamy, full of that "whole mouth" feel, as all the tastebuds are firing–and the berries really "pop!" against the background of everything else, becoming "Super-berries!" Kind of a "blanc mange" for the health conscious…and you'll never know it's nonfat. Yes, don't be afraid of the black pepper! But, make sure it's fresh.

    Regarding umami, as mentioned in the post, glutamate is an amino acid–amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. So, umami is often linked to dishes rich in protein. You've been "doing umami" for a long time, and probably don't even know it! Btw, protein comes from many sources other than meat, of course, so: experiment! Adding pan juices from a roast to your cheesecake recipe, therefore, probably isn't necessary…but, hmmm…food for thought! (Kidding…)

    Also, do a google for umami and read a few pages of definitions and wikis, to get a better feel for what you're trying to experience. If you've had immensely satisfying dishes that seem to have a lot going on, yet are very balanced, with no "one note" predominating, but, rather, exhibiting a symphony of flavors, you're getting there! (Even a "string quartet," for simple dishes, can be sublime!) Also, I don't use MSG or other flavor enhancers…I like to experiment with natural foods, themselves…don't be afraid to experiment. Cooking is a little like chemistry lab, and you get to eat your experiments, in the end!; how fun is that?! Hope this help, a little! :)

    Will

  12. Some more "food for thought":

    I mention sugars that are less refined than white sugar–e.g. light brown sugar," above, because they, in themselves, are more complex, less "one note," than fully-refined cane sugar. Also, look in your sugar aisle for "unrefined" cane sugar. It's relatively expensive (per lb.) than cane sugar, probably only comes in teaspoon-size packets, but is great for adding some complexity to savory dishes.

    Similarly, I mention sea salt, above, because there are a lot more salts other than sodium salt in sea water, from which it's derived…and trace minerals, etc., that add to the complexity of the dish you're adding it to. Again, the goal is to add complexity, in whatever way possible, even if it's under the level of strict detectability. Gives your brain more to "chew on!"

  13. Thanks for the tips, Will! My wife thinks I’m crazy, but perhaps what you’ve described is precisely why I can’t enjoy watermelon or cantelope without a sprinkle of salt.

    And also maybe why one of my favorite childhood treats was apple wedges & Fritos. Bizarre combo, perhaps, but I think it was all about the mixture of crisp & crunchy, sweet & salty flavors along with the assortment of textures. My mom was a master of unusual combos like that.

    I’ll be trying the “superberries” you described!

  14. Thanks for the tips, Will! My wife thinks I'm crazy, but perhaps what you've described is precisely why I can't enjoy watermelon or cantelope without a sprinkle of salt.

    And also maybe why one of my favorite childhood treats was apple wedges & Fritos. Bizarre combo, perhaps, but I think it was all about the mixture of crisp & crunchy, sweet & salty flavors along with the assortment of textures. My mom was a master of unusual combos like that.

    I'll be trying the "superberries" you described!

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