Kokumi: The Reason You’re Obsessed With Food
If you thought umami was delicious, wait till you taste kokumi! Umami has greatly changed the way cooks, food scientists and manufacturers think about food, but it turns out there’s a new taste sensation on the block and it’s kokumi – umami’s rival sister.
Never heard of her? Don’t worry, kokumi is a pretty recent discovery in the world of food, and scientists have just tapped the surface in uncovering its full potential. Imagine exploring food in a completely different way, well, kokumi apparently has the ability to highlight the bourbon flavour of fish sauce, and if you tried, it could probably make chicken liver taste like foie gras. I know what you’re thinking, impossible right? But that’s what kokumi does…
What is Kokumi?
Kokumi sounds a lot like umami and that’s because they’re both of Japanese origin. Umami translates to ‘essence of deliciousness’, while kokumi means ‘rich taste’. Umami is the fifth or seventh taste (if you count hot and cold) and makes food more delicious, whereas kokumi is not exactly a taste but more of a component of taste or sensation, as well as an additive.
Remember when Guy Fieri said, ‘welcome to flavourtown’? He was definitely talking about kokumi; it essentially enriches and enhances what we most love about certain foods.
Kokumi highlights existing or masked flavour profiles that our taste receptors might not be able to pick up.
Kokumi is literally one giant flavour bomb – it combines and enhances taste sensations of umami, sweet and salt. In fact, kokumi is said to add ‘craveability’, which largely explains why food is so addictive. Most fermented foods like cheese, braised or slow-cooked meat, garlic, onions and scallops are naturally high in kokumi. Other foods that deliver kokumi sensation include high-calcium foods like milk and cheese, as well as foods containing yeast extract.
The Discovery of Kokumi
Since Dr. Ikeda’s umami discovery, The Ajinomoto Group studied dishes containing onion and garlic, often described as having a ‘different’ flavour profile, which couldn’t be ascribed to umami. Broths and dishes steeped in onion and garlic have a ‘rich taste’, hence ‘kokumi’.
Umami naturally occurs in foods and the flavour can be attributed to glutamate, it’s also available in synthesised form, known as MSG. Similarly, kokumi sensation is experienced when eating certain ingredients, but is also available as a food additive/enhancer. The Ajinomoto Group isolated the peptide, glutathione, from garlic which is known to impart rich and emboldened flavours, and sold it as yeast extract.
How Does Kokumi Work?
As mentioned, kokumi is an overall taste sensation rather than a specific taste. Since scientists already knew that glutathione was closely associated with calcium taste receptors on the human tongue, they suspected that the glutathione found in kokumi activates calcium receptors, thus explaining the perceived kokumi sensation.
The study concluded that kokumi-rich substances amplify the taste of salt and intensifies the perceived sweetness of certain foods tenfold. Kokumi peptides typically present in high-protein foods and are largely experienced with the breakdown of protein bonds.
Although kokumi is tasteless as an additive, it has the ability to amplify the sweetness, saltiness and umami of foods.
Futhermore, scientists deduced that glutamate-rich ingredients and foods containing yeast extract contributed to kokumi sensation. Interestingly, these foods also delivered a sensation described as ‘mouthfulness’, impacting the continuity of flavours and viscosity.
We all know that texture transforms flavour. Hardened fat is unpleasant on its own, but if we’re talking bone marrow, that’s an entirely different story. Bone marrow has a velvety, slurpable texture, so delicious that you’d forget your table manners.
Being a calcium-rich food, bone marrow naturally imparts kokumi sensation. Stimulated calcium receptors accentuate more prominent flavours, as fat coats the mouth and tongue – a sensation described as ‘mouthfulness’.
Kokumi both intensifies and ‘stretches’ the flavour of certain foods. Glutathione peptides prolong the stimulation of binding calcium receptors, resulting in a lingering aftertaste. While kokumi is tasteless on its own, it amplifies existing flavours and their continuity.
Kokumi sensation also proves the science behind demi-glace sauces being more delicious. Reducing sauce allows flavours to develop and integrate over time. Nothing new, right? But kokumi takes this to new heights, as it increases the perceived viscosity of foods, making them richer in taste.
Thickness is what makes peanut butter satisfying, it’s the reason you subconsciously rub your tongue against your palate to savour the buttery aftertaste. Kokumi has the same effect when added to foods, it imparts a greater aroma and lends a ‘thicker’ mouthfeel.
The Benefits of Kokumi
Although kokumi is still in its infancy as a food concept, there are many potential applications. Kokumi could bolster the flavour of nutrient-dense or low-fat foods that some find unappetising, without compromising on taste.
When it comes to plant-based products, it’s often not the taste, but rather the mouthfeel that makes it less appetising. That being said, certain plant-based manufacturers and food innovators apparently look to kokumi to improve the mouthfeel.
Over time, our taste buds have perhaps become desensitised to perceiving certain taste sensations. Kokumi highlights existing or masked flavour profiles that our taste receptors might not be able to pick up. This opens up a world of possibilities in the realm of food, unleashing full flavour potential and could be a gateway to exploring trigeminal sensations.
Kokumi could bolster the flavour of nutrient-dense or low-fat foods that some find unappetising, without compromising on taste.
Although kokumi is tasteless as an additive, it has the ability to amplify the sweetness, saltiness and umaminess of foods – potentially making it a useful replacement for excessive amounts of butter, sugar and salt. This could especially be worth considering in familial cases of cholesterol, diabetes or high blood pressure, and perhaps even assist conditions like loss of appetite, or even long-term Covid suffers with diminished sense of taste. Because kokumi is a food additive, many liken it to MSG, but we would be remiss to ignore its potential applications.
Kokumi Sensational Recipes
Curious? Try these tasty and naturally kokumi-rich recipes…
Cumin Roasted Cauliflower Soup
Flavours of onion, garlic, cauliflower and vegetable stock come together as they gently simmer. Although this recipe isn’t peppered with spices, the mouthfeel and long-lasting flavour of the cumin lingers with each spoonful and even long after.
French Onion Soup
Onions are kokumi-rich and this soup is steeped with deliciousness.
Want more? Take your cooking from bland to bold with umami.
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