In addition to salty, sour, bitter, and sweet, which are the base flavors, there is a fifth known as Umami, and it can be found naturally in certain foods and added thanks to umami powder artificially.
But what exactly is Umami? In etymology, we find the biggest clue about the meaning of Umami. Translating from Japanese, it is the contraction of the words ‘flavor’ and ‘delicious.’ Kikunae Ikeda, the chemist who coined its name, was not far off the mark, as Umami is said to be addictive.
It is a taste found in various foods ranging from fish to Serrano ham to fruits and other foods. Its maximum expression is found in monosodium glutamate, and it is one of the most used products in oriental cuisine, specifically Asian cuisine. This explains why people with an excellent taste for this cuisine do not tolerate it well. Isn’t it the same for those addicted to sweets, while others don’t like them?
Umami helps enhance the flavor of the ingredients with which it is combined or the dishes to which umami powder is added. An easy example is found in sauces to which anchovies are added (rich in Umami) or broths enriched with a bone. We gain the flavor of this ingredient that we add, but the rest of the components of the dish are enhanced and elevated.
The key to the “addiction” to this flavor is found in the brain response. When we consume a product with umami flavor, receptors on the tongue are activated, which sends a signal to the brain, which translates it as something positive, nutritious and that we should continue consuming.
As a curiosity, each flavor activates a different receptor on the tongue. In the case of Umami, the taste is felt right in the center. Sweet start the tip of the tongue, salty and sour the sides, while bitter goes directly to the back.
Sugar gives us the sweet taste, salt the salty, citrus the sour, or vinegar the bitter. But what ingredient can provide us with the umami taste? The chemist above Kikunae Ikeda was responsible for creating a seasoning agent to add Umami to our dishes artificially: we talked about monosodium glutamate, patented in 1909.
Umami can be present naturally in certain foods, or it can be added artificially, with the monosodium mentioned above glutamate as umami powder through the compounds E620, E621, and E623. If we check the nutritional label of a product and contain any of these three names, there is no doubt; our palate will taste Umami.
But many foods contain Umami naturally. Take mushrooms, for example. If you think about it, would you say they are sour, bitter, salty, or sweet? Now you know they are not. They are Umami. The same goes for cured cheeses, cured ham, tuna, ripe tomatoes, or soy sauce.