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Despite having been discovered over a century ago in Japan, Umami has recently gained footing on the global stage with chefs, home-cooks, and foodies alike. This irresistible je-ne-sais-quoi flavor punches up the volume on some of the most crave-able consumables out there – including aged cheese, bacon, and rich broth.
Umami is the fifth “taste” alongside sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. Much like the primary colors of the food world, these five basic tastes are the building blocks of flavor. Umami is a delightful savory taste that occurs naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables, and dairy products.
The word “umami” has been translated from its original Japanese origins to mean “deliciousness” or “pleasant savory taste.” Scientifically, umami flavors come from substances combining the amino acid glutamate – or glutamic acid – with minerals such as sodium and potassium.
Much like our ancestral sweet tooth pushes us to access easy energy from sugars and avoid toxins associated with bitter flavors, our fervor for Umami is based in biology. Umami flavor signals the presence of protein in food, which is essential to our survival.
Glutamate has been saddled with an unsavory reputation due to its association with the food additive Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), which some consumers claim to cause headaches, tingling, and sweating. Scientific studies have not found a relationship between these symptoms and the presence of MSG in food, and the FDA has classified the additive as “safe for consumption”. In fact, naturally-occuring glutamates have been shown to be an effective flavor enhancer for consumers, thus reducing the need for added sodium in our diets.
The sweet-umami pairing in tomatoes may explain why the average American consumes 71 pounds of ketchup annually. Highly concentrated forms of tomato (i.e. tomato paste) are responsible for the craveable flavor in some of our favorite comfort foods (spaghetti, pizza, and the like).
Since umami signals the presence of protein, it makes sense that meat is naturally rich in glutamates. You’ll find the most powerful umami flavor in cured and aged meats (fancy steak, anyone?), and slow-simmered broths.
Mushrooms are a wonderful plant-based option to mimic that “meaty” flavor our tastebuds adore. Dried mushrooms (like shitakes, porcinis, and more) have a significantly higher concentration of glutamates due to the reduction of moisture. Adding dried mushrooms to your soups and noodle bowls is a sure-fire way to boost flavor without loading up on salt.
Bitter catechins and tannins collide with savory umami and natural sweetness for that magnificently memorable green tea taste. Studies show that drinking green tea can boost antioxidant levels, burn fat, and promote longevity, amongst a variety of other health benefits.
This probiotic-rich traditional Korean dish is made from fermented cabbage and spices, and boasts an impressive glutamate content. The fermentation process breaks down proteins into free amino acids, including glutamic acid that triggers our umami flavor receptors.
Like many other varieties of seafood, bonito flakes (also called Katsuobushi) contain high levels of glutamates. This smoked, dried tuna is often used to make rich fish broths (called Dashi), or as a seasoning to add instant flavor to vegetables and other sides.
Try incorporating some of these umami-rich foods into your diet for their fabulous flavor and health benefits!