Umami: The Essence of Deliciousness

Words: Robyn Samuels

We all know about the six essential tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, fat and spicy. But have you ever eaten a meal and wondered what made it distinctly delicious? Chances are that it’s probably the seventh taste, ‘umami’. While umami isn’t exactly the latest discovery in the culinary world, the ‘umami boom’ has revolutionised our perception of flavour and food. Discover the taste of umami and its association to the controversial additive, MSG.

What is Umami?

Let’s face it, some of us probably aren’t vegan/vegetarian because of the primal instinct to eat meat. But what makes it so tasty? The piquant taste of meat and certain foods can be attributed to umami. It’s what makes ramen broth flavourful, the reason sushi isn’t as satisfying without the addition of nori seaweed or dipping it in soy sauce.

Udon-Broth

What is umami though? Umami corresponds to our taste buds for savouriness. In the same way that we often crave something sweet, we sometimes crave salty/savoury foods, be it a packet of salt & vinegar crisps or biltong. Umami relates to more properties than just a ‘savoury’ flavour profile – it induces salivation (literally mouthwatering), balances tastes and enhances the complexity of flavours.

Umami translates to ‘the essence of deliciousness’ in Japanese.

Interestingly, umami outlasts other taste sensations, which explains the lingering taste after a delicious meal, compelling you to go back for seconds even when sated. If we were to exact the taste of umami, it can be attributed to glutamate.

The Discovery of Umami

The year was 1907 and while savouring a bowl of boiled tofu in kombu dashi, Japanese scientist, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, thought to himself, ‘damn this ramen slaps’ – perhaps not in that way, but he questioned what made dashi so delicious, as the flavour imparted couldn’t be ascribed to existing tastes. He coined the taste, ‘umami’, which translates to ‘the essence of deliciousness’ in Japanese.

Dr. Ikeda closely examined the composition of kombu (edible kelp), a component of kombu dashi (kelp stock) and discovered that the chemical component responsible for umami is glutamate.

Being a scientist, the rhetoric developed into research, as he set out to isolate the exact element attributed to the deliciousness. In 1909, Dr. Ikeda closely examined the composition of kombu (edible kelp), an ingredient in kombu dashi and discovered the chemical component responsible for umami is glutamate – but scientists were only able to detect umami taste receptors on the human tongue much later in 2002.

Apart from dashi/kombu, Dr. Ikeda deduced that glutamate or the taste of umami, is prominent in key ingredients such as tomato, onion, asparagus, cheese, mushrooms, salmon, anchovies, cured meats, fermented foods and a myriad of other ridiculously delicious foods. Because he was umami obsessed, he not only isolated the chemical component responsible for umami flavour, but also decided to replicate, synthesise and was smart enough to mass-produce it…

The Link Between Umami & MSG

Dr. Ikeda literally bottled ‘the essence of deliciousness’, otherwise known as the controversial food additive, MSG. We’ve all heard about the supposed dangers associated with consuming MSG and the rumoured Chinese Restaurant Syndrome – it doesn’t help that it’s a crystallised white substance and essentially mimics ‘culinary crack’, but is MSG really as bad as ‘we’ think?

monosodium glutamate link umami

Umami is synonymous with the taste of glutamate, and you’ll be surprised to know that it isn’t all that different from MSG or monosodium glutamate. The only difference is that MSG constitutes water, sodium and glutamate. No scientific evidence proving that MSG is ‘unhealthy’ exists, and if you think about it, humans have been consuming refined substances like sugar and carbohydrates for years, but why is MSG so controversial when it’s simply bottled glutamate?

MSG amplifies the natural taste of umami in certain dishes to make them more glutamate-rich.

The taste ‘sweet’ is usually associated with natural sugars (sucrose) like honey and sugar cane, but it’s also been synthesised to produce the refined sugar additive, xylitol, some people incorporate into their morning coffee. Glutamate, the neurotransmitter complement for the amino acid glutamate, is a naturally occurring substance and present in all biological organisms on earth. In the same way you would add salt to your food to enhance the natural flavour, MSG amplifies the natural taste of umami in certain dishes, making them more glutamate-rich.

Umami is synonymous with the taste of glutamate, and you’ll be surprised to know that it isn’t all that different from MSG or monosodium glutamate.

When compared to the chemical structure of glutamate, MSG has an extra sodium ion, even so, it contains less sodium than table salt — two-thirds less to be exact. Sure, salt is still essential to the human diet, especially for maintaining thyroid health, but too much salt negatively impacts blood pressure and cardiovascular health. Could MSG be the gateway to improving salt-intake without compromising the taste of food?

Umami Recipes

We’re not pushing you to do ‘culinary crack’, but rather challenge cultural biases in the scheme of appropriated Asian cuisine. Because we wouldn’t want to deprive you of the ‘essence of deliciousness’, here’s some umami loaded recipes for you to try (sans MSG).

umami flavour

Sticky Asian Pork with Egg Noodles

When we say umami induces salivation, we’re talking about this mouthwatering pork belly dish. The meat, rice vinegar, soy and hoisin adds layers of umami.

Sticky Asian Pork with Egg Noodles recipe

Miso Butter Charred Onion Potjie

An Ottolenghi-inspired potjie loaded with umami flavour, from the miso butter to the soft and slightly charred caramelised onions.

Miso Butter Charred Onion Potjie recipe

umami flavour
umami flavour

Roasted Mushroom, Chorizo & Old Brown Sherry Soup

This punchy soup is loaded with umami, thanks to the roasted mushrooms and tot of Old Brown Sherry.

Roasted Mushroom, Chorizo & OBS Soup recipe

Tonkotsu Style Ramen

Glutamate-rich soy sauce, mirin, garlic, mushroom and pork, impart spoonfuls of umami in this flavourful ramen broth.

Tonkotsu Style Ramen recipe

Take your cooking from bland to bold with these umami-rich condiments and pastes

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