Umami – the 5th taste defined

Spaghetti bolognese, tomato and Parmesan behind


Ingredients to add for more umami are mushrooms, meat broths, ripe tomatoes and fermented and aged products involving bacterial or yeast cultures such as Parmesan cheese, cured meats, shrimp paste, fish sauce, soy sauce and yeast extracts such as Marmite.

Close-up of parmesan cheese

Umami is a loan word from the Japanese and can be translated as “pleasant savoury taste”.

Scientists have debated whether umami was a basic taste since Professor Kikunae Ikeda first proposed its existence in 1908.

In 1985, the term umami was recognized as the scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides at the first Umami International Symposium in Hawaii. Its effect is to balance taste and round out the overall flavour of a dish.

Glutamate has a long history in cooking. Fermented fish sauces (garum), which are rich in glutamate, were used widely in ancient Rome, fermented barley sauces (murri) rich in glutamate were used in medieval Byzantine and Arab cuisine, and fermented fish sauces and soy sauces have histories going back to the 3rd century in China. In the late 1800s, famous French chef Auguste Escoffier created dishes that combined the five tastes without knowing the science behind umami.


Fleur de Sel Decamargue; Sea Salt

Adding a few flakes of salt to a recipe isn’t just about adding saltiness; it’s a flavour enhancer, so when you “salt to taste”, it also coaxes out low-lying aromas and flavours. It can also balance unwanted bitterness in a dish.


Curly endive on tea towel

Although we all have different tolerances, people tend to be sensitive to bitterness. Bitterness helps to balance any cloying sweetness. Great ingredients to add a bitter taste are horseradish, rocket, endive, radicchio and dark chocolate. Chicory is the common name in the United States for curly endive. These two closely related species are often confused.


Honey dipper with fresh honey; jar with honeycomb

Like salt, sweet flavours are good at giving a savoury dish more depth. If a dish is too sugary, sour ingredients like lemon juice and vinegar will cut through and brighten the sweetness. Use sweet ingredients to take the edge off dishes that are too bitter. Other ingredients to use as an alternative to sugar are honey, fruit, and golden syrup.


Lime fruits infront of bowl

This is another flavour that has a reputation for being hard to swallow, but even the smallest addition of a sour ingredient, like a burst of lemon or lime, a splash of vinegar, or a swirl of crème fraîche, can brighten up a dish. People often confuse sourness and bitterness, but the key difference to keep in mind is that sour flavours depend on acidity to give it that mouth-puckering taste. Ingredients that add sourness are lemon, lime, vinegar and cultured dairy products like buttermilk and sour cream.

Pictures: Corbis

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