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What is umami?

Understanding Spices

If you’re any sort of foodie, there’s no doubt that you’ve heard the term ‘umami’ being used in your favourite food programmes. But what does it actually mean?

Our taste buds are able to experience the four basic flavours – sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Umami is known as the fifth taste, that hard to describe deliciousness you can taste when eating certain Asian foods or hearty, meaty meals.

Although umami is a relatively recent term (officially named as the fifth taste in 1980), it actually dates back to over 100 years ago when it was first defined by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. The word translates from Japanese to ‘pleasant, savoury taste’ or ‘yummy’. Things like seafood, fatty meats like steak, aged cheese like parmesan, seaweed, miso and mushrooms all contain high levels of L-glutamate and therefore have that umami flavour.

Is umami good for you?

As umami is a flavour and not an ingredient, it’s not possible to give it a nutritional profile. It’s the main flavour in both healthy and unhealthy foods. For example, umami flavour is found in high-sodium food like soy sauce, ketchup and cured meats. It’s also found in healthy food like kimchi, shellfish, cabbage, mushrooms, tomatoes and asparagus.

The science behind umami

When foods are aged or are cooked under the heat of an open flame, the proteins in them go through a molecular change. Proteins are broken down into different units, one of which is a molecule called L-glutamate which creates the umami flavour. It works the same way as the other flavours do – when an L-glutamate molecule binds to specific receptors on your tongue, a chain reaction of chemical processes occurs, resulting in that savoury taste.

What to know about MSG

When Ikeda defined umami, he wanted to find a way to make it commercially available so that people could add the flavour to their own cooking – this became monosodium glutamate, or MSG. This is the sodium salt found in glutamic acid, an amino acid found in tomatoes, grapes, cheese and mushrooms. MSG is an additive used to enhance the flavour of dishes, and is commonly found in Chinese cuisine, stock cubes, ramen and even Doritos or Pringles. It was originally made with seaweed broth, but is now made from fermented starch and sugar cane.

MSG is a controversial ingredient and you may have heard of adverse reactions to food containing MSG which include headaches, heart palpitations and nausea – however, researchers haven’t found definitive evidence of the link between MSG and these symptoms. While there are many misconceptions and inconclusive research about the safety of MSG, it’s becoming more widely used in the food industry.

Umami recipes

Now that you have a grasp on what umami is and why it tastes so good, it’s time to incorporate this fifth flavour into your own cooking. Here are some recipes that have that wholesome, all-round flavoursome taste:

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