Photo: kiliweb per Open Food Facts, CC by SA 3.0
food

What is umami, the mysterious taste of Japanese cooking?

35 Comments
By George Lloyd, grape Japan

I like Japanese food as much as the next person, but when I first heard someone say that it has a taste all its own, one so distinct it warrants its very own adjective, I was pretty skeptical. While Japanese cuisine is certainly delicious, surely it can't claim to reach places that the world's other great cooking traditions - Chinese, French or Indian, for example - cannot?

The term in question is umami 旨味, a combination of umai - delicious - and mi - taste. "Delicious taste" is not too outlandish a claim to make for Japan's national cuisine. Is that really all there is to it? Well, yes. But umami is still pretty fundamental - indeed, it is considered to be one of the five basic tastes, up there with salty, sour, bitter, and sweet.

02868C1A-5646-4CCB-A.jpg
A tofu burger from the Restaurant Umami in Berlin. Photo: Berlin IckLiebeDir, "Restaurant Umami - Berlin - Tofu Burger" CC BY-ND 2.0 / © Flickr.com

So what gives a dish its distinctively "umami" flavor? It's hard to put your finger on, but it basically comes down to just that: flavor. Umami is tastiness. It is what unites all good savory dishes and is most pronounced in broths, stews, and cooked meats.

So is umami akin to meatiness? Is it a pleasure reserved only for carnivores? Apparently not. Vegetarians can also appreciate umami, for while it is most often found in meat dishes, it is also common in fermented foods, like cheese and soy sauce and is also found in tomatoes, onions and mushrooms.

This might be good news for vegetarians, but it is only likely to further confuse anyone trying to work out what the heck umami actually is. Food scientists will tell you that it comes down to the taste receptors in your mouth. What your taste receptors are delighting in when you taste umami is the presence of glutamates.

The clue is in the name: glutamates are so tasty that a clever chef invented monosodium glutamate (MSG) so he could make his cooking taste nice without actually using any tasty ingredients.

5892EA88-8942-4A7E-A.jpg
Japanese food giant Ajinomoto's Umami Science Square building in Kawasaki Photo: Suikotei, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Far from being a new-fangled buzzword, umami was first coined by a chemistry professor at Tokyo University by the name of Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. He stumbled across umami while enjoying a bowl of kombu dashi (kelp broth). Musing on its taste, it occurred to him that it was neither sweet, sour, bitter, or salty. He decided to investigate and discovered that what he was tasting was glutamate, a wholly new taste that he called umami.

But taste scientists are a conservative tribe, which is why Ikeda's discovery, despite being made in the opening decade of the twentieth century, only became well-known after 1985. That was the year the Umami International Symposium in Hawaii recognized umami as the scientific term to describe the taste of glutamate.

According to Ajinomoto, Japan's biggest soy sauce maker, the wider scientific community only recognized umami as a distinct taste, to rank alongside salty, sour, bitter, and sweet, in 2002. So, while fundamental, "tastiness" has only been recognized for less than 20 years, which is pretty strange when you consider how long people have been saying their food is "tasty."

While clearly important, I am still not clear about what umami actually tastes of. Apparently, "its effect is to balance taste and round out the overall flavor of a dish." That is all well and good, but a bit like defining a tin opener as "something you use to open tins with" - fine if you know what a tin is, but not much help if you don't.

Perhaps 'pungency' is a good way to describe umami. That is certainly what generations of chefs have been hoping for when they add a dash of fish, barley, or soy sauce to their cooking. And with good reason - all three are derived from fermented foods, and therefore rich in umami.

The world is cottoning on to the importance of umami not a moment too soon. Sodium chloride, or table salt, is one of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease. Excess salt in our diets is so ubiquitous that the World Health Organization has set a goal of reducing average salt intake around the world by 30%.

Umami-rich foods can help, because they give food the "tastiness" that we are hoping for when we add salt to a dish. Umami: not just a useful new word, but one with vital health benefits.

Read more stories from grape Japan.

-- Extreme spice lovers get ready! Mita Seimenjo’s latest noodles are spiked with Trinidad Scorpion pepper

-- Keep things cool this summer with this dark and handsome soy sauce flavoured kakigori

-- Shibuya pop-up store features Uji Matcha Ink Latte and more from Matcha Republic

© grape Japan

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

35 Comments
Login to comment

What is umami, the mysterious taste of Japanese cooking?

Nothing other than a Japanese word to describe a taste that already existed. No mystery, except the Japanese want to try and make it one.

13 ( +20 / -7 )

I don't believe "umami" exists as an extrasensory receptor in/on/ or near the tongue. It's a combination of other receptors already known to exist. Oh, and we all known how beneficial MSG (mainly made by Ajinomoto) is for health . . . . . Not! That stuff will kill you . . . literally!

3 ( +9 / -6 )

That stuff will kill you . . . literally!

Quite amazing how many people still quote this and believe it.

Try googling it. Go on... Just once. Google is your friend.

Or, you can continue to quote old wives' tales.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

kokoro7Today 09:17 am JST

Oh, and we all known how beneficial MSG (mainly made by Ajinomoto) is for health . . . . . Not! That stuff will kill you . . . literally!

1970s called.. Quite amazing how many people still believe this nonsense..

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Must be something unique again.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Foods naturally high in glutamates include parmesan cheese, yeast extract, shiitake, katsuo-bushi, nampla fish oil, oyster sauce, .... basically a list of ingredients used all over the world as flavour boosters or hidden tastes. The difference, which isn't much of one, is that Japan had a name for it

9 ( +9 / -0 )

Adding MSG hides the unskilled chef to make them appear good.

And by the way, soy sauce is so strong and harsh in America and made for the folks over there that like to douse there food in fattening sauces rather than taste delicate intricacies.

Inused to tell Americans, give me your food, and you can drink your dipping sauces.

-10 ( +0 / -10 )

ajinomoto is not the largest soy sauce maker. kikkoman is!

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Tamari is better in taste. We eat kimchi every day and drink green tea too. Take fish oil capsules every day since I was a child. Eat mushrooms every day. Seaweeds and dashi broths. Tofu. Bonito flakes. Tomatoes. All good stuff. Don't add MSG, not necessary.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Umami is a natural taste. I can easily taste it in shiitake and cheese.

MSG isn't natural. It's a food additive mainly produced by Ajinomoto. It's a chemical flavour enhancer. It can cause various health problems. Headaches in my case. A certain company in Japan uses umami and MSG as synonyms, therefore trying to deceive us consumers. Most of my Japanese friends aren't aware of this.

Why have more and more food companies in Europe started to produce food without MSG? Actually, there are some in Japan, too.

A friend of mine manages several ramen restaurants in a European country. As a matter of course, you will find a sign at the entrance: "We don't use MSG!"

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Not! That stuff will kill you . . . literally!

Doritos and many popular chips are popular because of MSG, although people don't realize it has MSG to boost the flavor.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

> I like Japanese food as much as the next person, but when I first heard someone say that it has a taste all its own, one so distinct it warrants its very own adjective, I was pretty skeptical.

I am still skeptical. The food here is great but not better than food anywhere else in the world and I have more experience eating food from around the world than probably 99.9%;of the population. Just more hubris from the "humble."

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

LotusKobe, maybe a revisit of basic chemistry would be helpful.

Or just a wiki read, the history of Kikunae Ikeda is quite interesting, how he succeeded in isolating glutamate from seaweed and determined its structure, and that fact that it is responsible for that particular taste, and then how he started a company with a friend, company that we know now by the name of Ajinomoto.

By the way, umami was discovered by a Japanese, but it is hardly a "Japanese cuisine thing", cheese, tomatoes, etc. are quite rich in glutamates.

And yes, there are receptors for umami.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

ajinomoto is not the largest soy sauce maker. kikkoman is!

And has been for many, many years!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I'm not anti-MSG, but those who care about it should note that it is in Kewpie mayonnaise.

I don't mind Japanese mayo on tako yaki etc. but prefer the usual Western one I grew up with. I don't like mayo on bakery stuff or pizza, which are both very common in Japan. I find it very greasy.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Author surprisingly got the five basic tastes wrong. They should be salty, sour, bitter, sweet and spicy....umami is just a PC term for food additive MSG, to throw off all the MSG critics...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Jessie Less, spicy is not a taste.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Sorry, Jessie Lee. I misspelled your name.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

As kohakuebisu said - umami exists all over the world and is not unique to Japanese cuisine. Just that 100 yrs ago, that particular taste was given a name.

In discussion with Japanese friends on this, I dared to suggest that umami was a "savoury quality". They said no, no, no. I said well then what's savoury mean in Japanese? They couldn't tell me.

So I said, "Oh the unique flavours of savouriness don't exist in Japan".

They didn't quite get it.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

browny1Today 06:12 pm JST

As kohakuebisu said - umami exists all over the world and is not unique to Japanese cuisine. Just that 100 yrs ago, that particular taste was given a name.

In discussion with Japanese friends on this, I dared to suggest that umami was a "savoury quality". They said no, no, no. I said well then what's savoury mean in Japanese? They couldn't tell me.

So I said, "Oh the unique flavours of savouriness don't exist in Japan".

They didn't quite get it.

But umami is a taste unique to Japan, that can only really be understood by Japanese people. "Savoury quality" is a foreign concept, definitely not the same.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

This is the best Umami flavor spice I have seen or tasted.

I use it on a daily basis.

https://www.makuake.com/project/umamispice/

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

MSG is awesome!

I just googled it and Ajinomoto showed up on the top page. That stuff is a must have for any good cooking!!

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Must be something unique again.

Funny how easily unique can be boring.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Hmm . . it's not an "old wives' tale" about MSG when, after eating something with MSG in it, it triggers chest pain and causes BP to go up. Those who haven't experienced it (yet) can easily call it an old wives' tale, but my cardiologist (renowned btw) says to stay away from it.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Japan food is the most healty, delicious and tasty in the whole world !!..

What is umami, the mysterious taste of Japanese cooking?

Nothing other than a Japanese word to describe a taste that already existed. No mystery, except the Japanese want to try and make it one.

The typical comment from someone who was raised only with hot dogs, coke and fries .. lol !!

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

I stay away from Japanese food as much as possible for health purposes. The typical 20 something OL for example has an extremely high body fat ratio from a short lifetime of eating rice, ramen, and convenience store bought bread.

Those little pickled radish dishes with their high salt content contribute to a high rate of stomach cancers. Soy sauces are another source of a disease promoting diet.

The high fat content of Tonkatsu, tempura are just crazy.

Eat a typical Western meal of steak, chicken, or fish, with vegetables that haven't been soaked in salt and vinegar. My doctors here are always amazed at my low cholesterol levels, low body fat, and blood pressure right where you want it to be.

One of the biggest myths of Japan is the healthy diet. Time for the truth to be told.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

I stay away from Japanese food as much as possible for health purposes…

Your comparison is hardly like for like Commodore. Your idea of Japanese food seems to be based on what you found within 100m of the train station… Taking the same approach, a ‘typical Western meal’ would not be as you describe but burgers and fries, lathered in fatty mayonnaise and sugary ketchup and accompanied by sugary sofa. Topped up in between by volumes of hot milk masquerading as ‘coffee’ washing down a sugar filled brownie.

i maybe exaggerate to make a point but you should get out and learn something about traditional Japanese cuisine (which like other countries’ varies by region - you complain about salt, have you experienced traditional Kyoto style cooking?)

Life expectancy in Japan is still higher than pretty much any Western country, and while diet is only one component of that, it’s important. And obesity in the west is a far bigger (no pun intended) than in Japan (although an obsession with ever more bread, patisserie and ‘cheese’ in everything doesn’t seem to be helping - there certainly seem to be more overweight Japanese than I recall 30 years ago..)

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Marc PennToday  07:10 am JST

Your comparison is hardly like for like Commodore. Your idea of Japanese food seems to be based on what you found within 100m of the train station…

Tokyo has about 1/4 the total population of Japan. Any idea of how many people live within 100M of a train station?

Taking the same approach, a ‘typical Western meal’ would not be as you describe but burgers and fries, lathered in fatty mayonnaise and sugary ketchup and accompanied by sugary sofa. Topped up in between by volumes of hot milk masquerading as ‘coffee’ washing down a sugar filled brownie.

But that is not the diet I described. Besides, if you go 100M past a train station you will find McDonald's, Burger King, Mos Burger, KFC etc. Never mind a vending machine (laden with sugary drinks) for every 248 people in Japan.

i maybe exaggerate to make a point but you should get out and learn something about traditional Japanese cuisine (which like other countries’ varies by region - you complain about salt, have you experienced traditional Kyoto style cooking?)

What makes you think I haven't gotten out and learned about traditional Japanese cuisine? The fact I have is how I make my argument. And Kyoto style--no way. Tofu has too many chemicals with adverse effects. And Kyoto style also has those pickled radishes I mention.

Life expectancy in Japan is still higher than pretty much any Western country, and while diet is only one component of that, it’s important. And obesity in the west is a far bigger (no pun intended) than in Japan (although an obsession with ever more bread, patisserie and ‘cheese’ in everything doesn’t seem to be helping - there certainly seem to be more overweight Japanese than I recall 30 years ago..)

Life expectancy is not only dependent on diet; the access to health care in Japan is the primary factor for this.

Again, all I am saying is stick with steak, fish, or chicken, and vegetables, and if you have an otherwise healthy lifestyle then your life expectancy will not differ from Japanese'.

If you made the argument about sashimi, yakitori, things like that, then we would be in the same page.

But again, with the diet I listed, you can't go wrong (unless you have pre-conditions that would make beef/steak unsuitable).

And of course, wouldn't hurt to throw in a little fruit.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

My brother for one, and probably others are allergic to MSG. That’s the main reason restaurants will not use it. Enough folks have went in and said “I love your Almond Chicken and bean sprout egg rolls but I’m allergic to MSG”.

About Japanese food? I dislike sea and fish flavors so I won’t comment. But I’d take a decent Spanakopita over any food I could buy in Japan except for the fresh ¥fruits¥ and vegetables.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Commodore, I don’t think your suggestion for long life is a bad one - not too much steak, mind - our main point of difference is your generalizations of Japanese food as unhealthy and a western diet as healthy, supported by selective references to dismiss the first and the use of an idealized description to support the later.

My point is that there is much that is good in traditional Japanese cooking and plenty that is bad in much of what passes for Western diet these days.

i think the issue is not Japanese vs Western but that there’s good and bad in both, and it’s necessary to be selective and balanced in either case.

(And I did already acknowledge that diet was not solely responsible for Japanese life expectancy).

Anyway - I wish you good health and an appetizing lunch!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Marc PennToday  09:33 am JST

Commodore, I don’t think your suggestion for long life is a bad one - not too much steak, mind - our main point of difference is your generalizations of Japanese food as unhealthy and a western diet as healthy, supported by selective references to dismiss the first and the use of an idealized description to support the later. 

My point is that there is much that is good in traditional Japanese cooking and plenty that is bad in much of what passes for Western diet these days.

You are correct, I was providing a generalization of Japanese food. But I was very specific about the Western diet I was promoting.

I go to a few gyms here, and one of the trainers gave me stats on female members, all under 30, and their body fat was over 23%! Crazy for someone who weighs 45-50kg. They hide it well under their clothes.

I don't deny there are good aspects of Japanese food. Personally, I don't like much of it. I can eat sashimi, some sushi and what not.

And most of the Japanese food I do like resembles what I eat anyway-- steak, chicken, fish.

And so, it is steak, chicken, or fish, and tons of vegetables for me whether in Japan or the States. Eggs in the morning.

Don't even get me started on white rice though.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Commodore Perry

I stay away from Japanese food as much as possible for health purposes. 

And yet, the Japanese have one of the longest life spans in the world.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

zichiToday  10:35 am JST

And yet, the Japanese have one of the longest life spans in the world.

Read the above comments--we covered that issue, which in summary, is irrelevant to my point.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

But umami is a taste unique to Japan, that can only really be understood by Japanese people. "Savoury quality" is a foreign concept, definitely not the same.

Oh, so you are saying, that if you arent Japanese you can't understand "umami?"

What a crock of ....

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Good old MSG...I mean UMAMI...

How the hipsters would cringe if they new their new buzz word is actually a food additive! ;)

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites