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What is umami, the fifth flavor

22 mayo, 2021

Human beings are said to be able to recognize five different tastes: bitter, salty, sour or sour, sweet and umami. This last flavor, the most difficult to describe, is unknown to many people. So today I will try to explain what is Umami, the fifth flavor.

In fact, its knowledge is relatively recent, although the search for these foods that enhance flavor was already a tradition even in the ancient Rome where the Garum was used, a fermented fish sauce rich in Umami. The word Umami comes from the Japanese language and means tasty.

The word Umami, is derived from two words, Umai (delicious) and me (flavor) and has been used since the term was chosen by the Japanese Kikunae Ikeda to refer to foods when they taste delicious and pronounced or intense.


Umami 2

There are many foods that contain Umami, although there is a product that is practically pure Umami, the ajinomoto or monosodium glutamate. This product, widely used in Asian cuisine, can be purchased in powder form, but we are more interested in discovering which foods are rich in Umami, to combine them and enhance our stews and other recipes. A good example would be cured ham.

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A little history of umami and foods in which this flavor is found

The umami flavor was not identified in the strict sense until 1908 when the scientist Kikunae Ikeda of the Imperial University of Tokyo discovered that glutamate was responsible for the taste of the Kombu seaweed cooking broth, whose flavor was different from the traditionally known flavors, sweet, sour, bitter and salty, calling the resulting flavor Umami.

Later, other foods were investigated, discovering in them the presence of this fifth flavor, such as shavings of bonito or katsuobushi, from the first photo, or shiitake mushrooms, whose cooking also produces very tasty broths, very rich in Umami.

Umami Shiitake

The fifth flavor was also discovered in many other foods, such as cheese, anchovies, ripe tomatoes, dried tomatoes and many other ingredients such as soy sauce or cured ham.

How to enhance umami in our dishes?

Later, the effects of umami began to be analyzed, not so much for its own flavor, but for the flavor that enhances other ingredients. For example if when making a chicken broth you add a little soy sauce or a shiitake, the broth will not be more salty, but it will have more flavor, it will be tastier, or what is the same, it will have more umami.

Although many of us did not know what Umami is, already we were using it unconsciously in many of our recipes. A mixture such as cheese and tomato (typical in pasta dishes) or enriching a broth with bones or a cane of ham, are ways to enhance the flavors of each ingredient by using the umami flavor.

Umami Cheese

Both tomato and ham or cheese are foods rich in umami that have as a characteristic, that beyond their own flavor, they manage to enhance the individual flavor of the other ingredients used. This occurs for chemical reasons since the foods that contain glutamate in combination from foods containing ribonucleotides, make their respective flavors multiply.

The drizzle of Perrin’s sauce (which contains anchovies among other ingredients) in the cooking of lentils with chorizo, it makes the flavor very potent. The same happens with the combination of anchovies, cheese and tomato in the alla puttanesca sauce of Italian cuisine.

Umami Tomato

Our papillae perceive umami when we eat foods with Glutamate, or with other compounds such as Guanosine or Inoside in its derivatives, inosinate or guanylate. What is peculiar is not only the perception of that “tasty” flavor, but of the balance that provides other flavors since, for example, it reduces the feeling of bitterness and enhances the sweet, leaving the food more harmonized, more balanced or rounder.

As it is not a flavor we are in “educated It is not easy to distinguish umami -as we do with sweet, bitter, acid or salty- but it is easy to notice the effect it produces when achieving a more intense flavor, which causes salivation and makes us feel that the dish It has a special “touch”.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop called In Search of Umami, in the school Dreams of kitchen. The workshop was taught Chema Soler, the chef of the Gastrocroquetería and he told us a lot about Umami, -and he gave us a text that has helped me a lot to prepare this post-, and also, he taught us how to use it in a few recipes.

In a few days I will show you the dishes that we prepared in that workshop on Umami and through the recipes that we learned to prepare, you will see how you can incorporate this flavor to enhance our most common recipes, giving them an extra flavor, a tasty touch or what is the same, one touch Umami.

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