Umami - the fifth flavor

Do you have a special favorite dish? Can you explain what makes this particular dish so irresistible to you? Try once to describe what is special about their taste. Do you find it difficult?

Then you’re likely to fail at umami, the fifth taste besides sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.

Biologically, there are not just four flavors, but actually five. The fifth flavor is the so-called umami flavor.

Until 2002, the existence of the fifth sense of taste was controversial among experts. But then scientists and master chefs alike agreed to officially recognize this flavor as the fifth flavor.

Umami gives a dish depth and rounds it off. It is responsible for making us roll our eyes in rapture at a hearty meat broth, roasted meats so uniquely satisfying, and aged cheeses so incomparably delicious to many.

All well and good - but how does it actually taste?

Literally translated, the Japanese term “umami” means tasty, delicious.

Imagine food on your tongue, such as meat streaked with fat, aged cheese or seafood, and you’ll immediately know what we’re talking about.

Japanese restaurant

What is umami?

The umami taste is produced by ingredients such as amino acids, glutamate and aspartate. They are responsible for the rich flavor so typical of roasted meat ,
Ramen broths
, ripe cheese and other fermented products.

Glutamic acid is found in many animal and plant foods, including breast milk.

Already as an infant we get used to the rich taste. That’s why we love later dishes with roasted meat, spicy mushrooms, celery and sun-ripened tomatoes.

Miso paste from Japan, fermented from soybeans, grain and salt, also belongs to this category.

All these foods give a dish its hearty and unmistakably full-bodied flavor.

Where does umami come from?

The fifth flavor is not a discovery of modern times, it has always been in our food. However, it was not considered a flavor in its own right until the end of the 19th century, except by master chefs of the time.

From a purely technical point of view, the unique flavor is created when glutamate, a type of amino acid found in many of the foods already mentioned, breaks down.

When these foods are cooked, the glutamate turns into what is known as L-glutamate, which is responsible for the full-bodied taste. Many foods also contain free glutamate, natural monosodium glutamate or MSG for short, which acts as a flavor enhancer.

The history of the fifth sense of taste

In the late 19th century, the famous French chef Escoffier explained the secret of his success with a fifth flavor, not considered further until then, which made his veal broth a delicacy.

At the same time, Japanese chemist and food lover Kikunae Ikeda also noticed this intense flavor. He labeled them “umami” = “deliciousness”.

Ikeda noticed while enjoying a bowl of dashi that he could not describe its particular aroma with any of the four known flavors.

Dashi is an intense tasting broth made from kombu seaweed and bonito flakes (grated dried fish). It is the basis of many Japanese dishes.

Ikeda’s curiosity as a chemist was piqued, and he investigated in the lab what exactly made this taste. In his research, he came across glutamic acid, which binds to certain receptors in the tongue. He used his findings to commercialize artificial MSG, which is now an indispensable part of Asian cuisine and, to the chagrin of many health experts, of Western cuisine as well.

MSG as an artificial flavor enhancer

In artificial, crystalline form, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is popularly used today as a flavor enhancer, especially in Asian cuisine.

However, it has also found its way into the Western world and can be found in high concentrations in almost all prepared foods and soup mixes. Unfortunately, many people react to the artificial MSG with headaches and other symptoms, so its use is warned against by health experts.

However, this effect occurs very rarely, if at all, with naturally occurring glutamate , if only because of its much lower concentration.

Green tea
Parmesan cheese
matured beef
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These ingredients are particularly rich in umami

Natural umami flavor is present in both animal and many plant foods.

Listing of foods in which the urami flavor occurs naturally:

  • Meat, especially matured beef
  • Green tea
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Bone broth, meat broth, vegetable broth
  • Seafood, seaweed
  • Milk
  • Nuts
  • Parmesan, Rochefort and other mature cheeses
  • Mushrooms
  • Celery
  • Soy
  • Asparagus
  • Tomatoes

Taste zones of the tongue

Die fünf Umami Geschmacksrichtungen in einer Grafik

As already mentioned, the tongue has receptors for the five basic tastes sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. The taste buds can adapt to the concentration of tastes. For example, if you consume a lot of sugar and then reduce it, after a short adjustment phase you will taste the natural sweetness of fruits and vegetables more intensely than before and perceive foods with the previous amount of sugar as too sweet. The same applies to the other flavors.

We learn to know and love the sweet taste as infants and remain closely attached to it throughout our adult lives. Sweetness is considered a taste of pleasure. It points to the ingredient sugar and thus a welcome source of energy to fuel the body.
Salt improves the taste of food and is a necessary component of human nutrition. Therefore, the most important taste receptor of the tongue is the salty taste receptor.

Sour taste buds detect hydrogen ions from organic acids in foods, whether they are citrus fruits, yogurt, or fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut. Everyone knows the feeling when everything tightens up at the very thought of licking a slice of lemon.

The tongue’s receptors for the taste of bitter substances are particularly sensitive, as many of them are toxic. The taste buds must be able to perceive many of these substances. Some bitter taste can pleasantly enrich a meal, such as roasted sesame seeds. Many people also find the bitter notes of coffee and dark chocolate pleasant.

The appetizing umami flavor was identified last. Adding one or more of the foods with a lot of umami to a dish, for example the particularly rich shitake mushrooms or tomatoes, creates a round basic taste that the tongue receptors perceive as delicious and palatable.

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