One of the most interesting aspects of the recent Worlds of Flavor conference at the Culinary Institute of America on Japanese food was discovering the central roll that the ‘fifth taste’ umami plays in Japanese cuisine.

Although scientists have long recognized four basic tastes, rumors of a fifth were confirmed after Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in Japan isolated the amino acid glutamates from kombu, a type of seaweed traditionally used to make the dashi stock that is fundamental to Japanese cooking.

He called it umami, or “deliciousness,” and it’s a rich or savory meaty flavor.

Most dashi also contains dried bonito; other scientists isolated the nucleotide isosinate in dried bonito and nucleotide guanylate from dried shiitake mushrooms. Combinations of these substances create even richer sensations. Aspartate is another amino acid often present with glulumate.

Our tongues have taste receptors for umami, just as they do for sourness, bitterness, sweetness and salty. They have physiological bases that evolved with humans.

Sweetness, for example, indicates carbohydrates for energy, saltiness minerals necessary for life, while sour suggests rotting (fermenting) fruits and vegetables, and bitterness is associated with toxins. Umami indicates proteins, a vital component of our bodies. (Two other mouth sensations, spicy and astringent, are not considered tastes.)

Americans are most familiar with soy sauce, miso and monosodium glutamate (MSG or Accent) for contributing umami, and tend to think  of the concept as Asian. 

Many studies have found that MSG doesn’t cause allergic problems for most people. It’s a naturally occurring ingredient, though an excess of the concentrated might bother you, just as salt or beans might.

Many popular western foods are also rich in umami. While kombu is especially rich in glutamates  with 1985 mg per 100 grams, Parmesan cheese has 1680 and ripe tomatoes 250. Soy sauce has 780 and green tea leaves 670. Cured meats also contain high levels of glutamates.

Human milk is a rich source of glutamates , about the same concentration as in kombu, undoubtedly developing a taste for umami at an easy age.

Italian Bolognese sauce, combining meat (a good source of isosinate), tomatoes (glutamates) and cheese (glutamates ) are other examples of umami-ladden food. Even a cheeseburger with its glutamates from cheese and isosinate from meat shows how our body seeks rich flavors.

And the traditional mirepoix of carrots, onions and celery is rich in glutamates, as is chicken bouillon. Other foods rich in umami include tomato paste, ketchup, anchovy paste, sauerkraut, ham, cheese, Worchester sauce and those yeast extracts so loved by the English and Australians, Marmite and Vegemite.

This suggests that cooks who like to create rich-tasting, satisfying meals might keep umami in mind, making sure that they incorporate elements that contribute to it.

The most obvious way is to simply add umami-rich ingredients. Aside from the popular Western additions mentioned above, Asian, notably Japanese, flavors are another approach. European and American chefs increasingly add soy sauce or shoyu to stews, soups and other food to contribute richness

One secret to using soy sauce in Western foods is to add just a little, so it contributes richness without an obvious soy flavor, just as many Italian chefs sneak an anchovy or two into stews and sauces.

Another strong source of umami is soy sauce. It is created from wheat and soybeans plus salt and a special mold, koji (Aspergillus oryzae), which converts hard-to-digest soy proteins, starches and fats into easily absorbed amino acids, simple sugars and fatty acids. It comes in regular and lower-sodium versions as well as in lighter and darker flavors. They’re worth experimenting with. Tamari is wheat-free  soy sauce and is darker and more intense.

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Kilkkoman makes its shoyu in Wisconsin from U.S. soybeans, and has pretty much become the standard here. Chinese soy sauce has a different flavor, and don’t even think about using La Choy and other artificial soy sauces, which aren’t fermented, the critical step, but are just mixtures of colored water with chemicals.

Miso and dashi have many potential uses, too.

Miso is umami-rich fermented soybeans (Mame miso) or soybeans with grains (Kome miso). It contributes a salty richness, sometimes a bit of sweetness, to foods. It’s most familiar to most of us as the ubiquitous soup served in Japanese restaurants, and is readily available in dried form or as a paste.

The soup normally contains other ingredients such as dashi stock. The paste version seems tastier than the powdered, but may require refrigeration.

A tub lasts a long time; among the varieties are shiro miso, which is lighter, and dashi miso with the bonito flakes included so it’s not suitable for vegetarians.

Marukome makes miso broth concentrate in both original and tomato-ginger versions. Any miso provide a nice alternative to coffee in the morning and provide a satisfying hot drink. They can be high in sodium but vary widely.

Miso is a also valuable addition to marinades and sauces as well as salad dressings. Its flavor often underlies the other ingredients, but adds richness. Two great applications are an egg-less Caesar salad dressing as well as rich blue cheese dressing.

Dashi means broth, and traditional broths are made from kombu (a type of kelp) as well as flaked dried bonito, but are commonly combined into an all-purpose stock. It’s a nice alternative to chicken broth including for clam chowder and other fish soups, as well as rice dishes like risotto, but is certainly not limited to them.

Whether you use Asian ingredients like miso and soy sauce or stick to traditional European and American ingredients, it’s worthwhile to consider umami as you cook. It will help you create tasty meals — maybe even help you diet by satisfying your body without fewer calories.

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