Pop quiz: How many different tastes can you name?
You can probably identity sour and sweet. You likely also know bitter and salty. These four tastes are common enough that most of us can not only define them, but likely list some specific foods that match these taste profiles.
But here’s where things get tricky: Can you name the fifth taste?
For many, the answer is no. And even if you know its name—umami—you may not have a clear sense of what it is, what it tastes like, or where it works into the flavor rainbow.
A Brief History of Flavor
Part of the reason why umami is so poorly understood is that it wasn’t even discovered until fairly recently. For literally thousands of years, culinary investigators and flavor scientists have recognized the tongue’s ability to sense and distinguish between four basic flavor strands—sweet, sour, salty, bitter.
Only recently has science unearthed a fifth distinct flavor. Umami can best be described as a savory taste—something that characterizes the effect of everything from a hearty burger or juicy steak to fermented cheeses and anchovies.
That’s not to say that umami wasn’t always around. Famous chefs have sworn by the power of their meaty, savory flavors to create truly addictive dishes. But until fairly recently, this fifth flavor didn’t really have a name—and in some ways, we’re still struggling to understand just how robust its beefy power can be.
A Closer Look at Umami
So let’s take a deeper dive into umami. First, there’s the name—obviously not as understandable or as straightforward as sour or salty. Actually, the name umami was coined by a scientist from Tokyo, and can be translated from Japanese to mean either yummy or delicious—a pretty good way to describe this remarkable fifth flavor!
There are obviously a lot of savory food items that capture something of this meaty, delicious flavor. Broths and soups are often heralded as the best, clearest examples of this taste in action. Get something that’s been simmered for a long time, cooking slowly and developing a deep and rich flavor, and you’ll get a good understanding of what umami is like.
Interestingly, though meat-based foods are often identified as being heavy on umami, raw meat isn’t very umami at all. You have to do something to the ingredient to unleash the amino acids that create the rich flavor. Cooking meat has this effect. Fermentation can also work.
The reason we like umami so much, by the way, is because it’s a marker for protein—something the body desperately needs. So don’t fight your urges. Umami tastes amazing—and it’s often connected to some really nutritious menu items, too.