Umami, the Fifth Taste

The right ingredients will make your food astonishingly flavorful
Jul 31, 2003
Umami can be created or enhanced through the combination of a wide array of ingredients.
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Nine years ago, when Jonathan Pratt was dating Suzie Low, now his wife, she cooked pork adobo for him. He was initially repelled by the copious amount of fish sauce in Low's version of this Filipino dish. But in the interests of romance, he plowed ahead. By the end of the evening, he had consumed three portions.

Ironically, it was the fish sauce that hooked Pratt, though he didn't know it at the time. What was it in the fish sauce that made that pork adobo so wonderful? Umami. Ingredients such as fish sauce, soy sauce, Parmigiano-Reggiano and dried shiitake mushrooms enhance the taste of food by increasing its umami level. Today, as co-owner of the Umami Café in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., Pratt demonstrates this every evening.

We've always been told that there are four basic tastes: salty, sweet, bitter and sour. However, there is a fifth taste, umami (pronounced oo-MOM-ee). It sounds more exotic and mysterious than the other four, and in a way, it is. Umami has been variously described as tasty, meaty, savory or just plain "delicious."

Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine and president of WineQuest, a wine consulting company in the Napa Valley, has been an umami disciple since he gave a seminar to a group of Japanese sommeliers 12 years ago. "One of the sommeliers asked 'How do you refer to the amino acid taste in wine, you know, umami?'" Hanni said. "I had no idea what he was talking about. But afterward I did some research and found 100 papers on the subject." In fact, "the Chinese have been talking about it for 1,200 years," writes Wine Spectator editor at large Harvey Steiman in his book Essentials of Wine. An early western reference can be found in Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's Physiology of Taste (first published in Paris in 1825), which refers to a "savory taste" in certain foods.

Umami was isolated by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1907. Ikeda wondered if the seaweed that gave flavor to a common Japanese broth could do the same for other foods. He discovered that the active ingredient in the seaweed was glutamic acid. Glutamic acid, or glutamate, had a taste that was distinctive from sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Ikeda named it "umami" (from the Japanese words umai or "delicious" and mi or "essence"). Ikeda then created monosodium glutamate (MSG), which could provide umami as a seasoning.

"Put some MSG on your tongue. At first it doesn't taste so good. But then 10 seconds later, it's a big taste, more like a feel. I call it savory," says Joe Brand, associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Brand says he thinks it is the sodium that activates glutamate in MSG to give the umami effect.

Umami is also found in nucleotides, the basic structural units of DNA, among other things. When foods that contain glutamates are combined with foods that have nucleotides, the umami effect increases exponentially, says Hanni.

Glutamate rich foods include seaweed, cheeses (especially Parmigiano-Reggiano), soy sauce, fish sauce, green tea, sardines, fresh tomato juice, peas and fermented beans. Good sources of nucleotides are dried shiitake, matsutake and enokitake mushrooms as well as fresh shiitake mushrooms, bonito flakes, bonito, mackerel, sea bream, sardines, tuna and aged beef.

While many foods have natural amounts of umami, their umami levels can increase when they undergo various transformations. The most elemental of these is the ripening of fruits and vegetables. For example, a ripe tomato has 10 times the glutamate of an unripe tomato. Drying, curing, aging and fermentation all increase the umami level. Dried shiitake mushrooms and dried sardines have considerably more umami than their fresh counterparts. Why does aged beef have more flavor than unaged beef? It has more umami. Fermentation gives soy sauce, Asian fish sauces and many other condiments such as hot sauces, Worcestershire sauce, Vegemite and Bovril lots of umami.

Fermentation also applies to beverages such as beer and wine. Hanni says big, rich red wines, especially those with high ripeness levels such as Australian Shirazes, and whites that have extended lees contact such as "big, fat, ripe, creamy Chardonnays and round, delicious Champagnes" tend to have the most umami.

What many of these methods have in common is that they break down foods into smaller units of flavor, which are easier to detect. These smaller units, says Shirley Corriher, a food scientist and the author of CookWise, The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking (William Morrow) "make taste receptors go 'ding ding' in our brain and say 'this is good.'"

At the Umami Café, which opened in January 2002, Pratt calls his blend of Asian, Hawaiian, European and Latin flavors "umami-fusion." I call it one of the most flavorful menus I've ever sampled. "I'm always trying to increase the amount of umami in a dish," Pratt says. "For example, when I brown lamb shanks, I use duck fat instead of oil because duck fat is high in umami."

Duck is ubiquitous on the menu, from Peking duck quesadillas (which get a shot in the arm from umami-rich hoisin sauce) to duck-amaki, Moulard duck breast rolls with a sweet soy glaze. The superlative coconut lime soup is a caldron of umami, with peas, fish sauce and shiitake mushrooms.

Sometimes Pratt will take a decidedly un-umami dish such as macaroni and cheese and "pump it up" with umami ingredients, in this case, truffle oil, truffle butter, soy sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The result is a mac and cheese so addictive that my wife and I fought over the last few mouthfuls.

You can do your own umami layering at home. Cooking increases umami by breaking down food into smaller components. For example, a long, slow-simmering stew generally has a higher level of umami (all other factors being equal) than a quick sauté. Oven roasting or oven drying not-ready-for-prime-time tomatoes will punch up the umami by concentrating the flavor. A pinch of sugar in tomato sauce mimics the ripening process and thus boosts umami as well.

Tomato sauces are a good medium for umami experimentation because their existing umami can easily be enhanced. For instance, adding vodka to a tomato sauce increases flavor, because even though vodka itself has no taste, the alcohol acts as a solvent, releasing the umami in tomatoes. And because vodka is higher in alcohol than table wine, it does a more effective job than wine.

Sometimes umami boosters can come from unlikely sources. Even though soy sauce and tomato sauce seem like improbable partners, a small amount of soy sauce increases the umami in tomato sauce. A few minced anchovies do the same thing. (Oily fish are typically high in umami. Salt curing increases the effect.) Try them in braised dishes, too, such as osso buco.

Aside from having fruit-forward wines, Pratt hasn't played much with building umami by matching wines with food. An Alsatian Pinot Blanc worked nicely with the lighter fare I sampled. A California Pinot Noir did the trick with the heavier stuff. (Both are food-friendly wines.) In Essentials of Wine, Steiman notes that foods high in umami "send any bitterness in wine off the charts." That's why, Steiman writes, "Burgundians choose their older wines for braised beef and chicken. The reduced tannin in older wines doesn't clash with umami."

Aside from aggravating tannic wines, umami would seem to have no downside. But for some folks, the mere mention of MSG sends off alarm bells because they believe it causes headaches and other symptoms such as sweating and numbness or burning in the mouth. However, Corriher, Hanni and Brand all say that the negativity surrounding MSG is vastly overstated. "The students I survey (at nearby University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine) who say they suffer from 'Chinese restaurant syndrome' also eat Parmesan cheese and tomatoes," Brand says "And restaurants that say 'No MSG' also have dishes loaded with soy sauce."

One area where umami seems to have little effect, positive or negative, is dessert. "Even chocolate doesn't have umami," Pratt says.

Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).