When you hear the word "umami," what comes to mind? How would you explain it to someone who's not familiar with it? The word "umami" is deeply embedded in Japanese culture and Japanese people are introduced to the word from a very young age. But what is it in the first place? What role does it play in Japanese food? In this article, we'll take a close look at what umami is and the history behind it.
What Exactly is "Umami"?
Some people equate umami to deliciousness, but it's not quite the case. Umami is one of the five basic tastes along with sweetness, acidity, saltiness, and bitterness. Deliciousness, on the other hand, is not only decided by taste but also appearance, aroma, texture, sound, atmosphere, and the environment surrounding the meal. It's a combination of various elements.
As such, when something has umami, it doesn't necessarily mean it tastes delicious. Umami is an independent taste that cannot be made by mixing anything. It's made up of umami components, which are often contained in "dashi," a staple ingredient in Japanese food. This is why Japanese soup stocks, which are often made from kelp (kombu), bonito, and shiitake mushroom have a gentle taste that enhances the other ingredients in them.
Umami Components: Best When Combined
Now let's take a closer look at umami. The most known components of umami are glutamic acid, inosinic acid, and guanylic acid. Glutamic acid is one of the 20 amino acids that make up proteins, while inosinic acid and guanylic acid are classified as nucleic. These components are not only contained in Japanese ingredients but are also in various types of food that are familiar to us.
For example, glutamic acid is abundant in kelp, but it is also found in vegetables such as onions, broccoli, and tomatoes in varying amounts. Meat, like bonito, contains inosinic acid, and mushrooms have guanylic acid.
In addition, it has been proven that umami dramatically increases by combining glutamic acid (categorized as an amino acid) with inosinic acid and guanylic acid (categorized as nucleic acids), rather than cooking each umami component on its own.
We see this in Japanese cuisine where kelp or kombu (glutamic acid) and dried bonito or katsuo (inosinic acid) are often combined. Chinese and western cuisine also achieve this by combining vegetables and meat.
Umami may have been discovered relatively recently, but it's been present in various dishes worldwide all this time.
How Umami was Discovered
The first person to discover umami was Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist. Dr. Ikeda took an interest in kelp because Japanese people have been using it for cooking since ancient times.
In 1908, Dr. Ikeda succeeded in extracting glutamic acid from kelp and named the taste "umami." As such, it was only a hundred years ago that the taste was discovered. Inosinic acid in dried bonito and guanylic acid in dried shiitake mushrooms were also later found to be umami components, so it was decided to make the word "umami" an umbrella term for all three.
Worldwide Spread of Umami Culture
Umami may have been discovered in Japan, but it's present in various dishes around the world.
For example, it's present in the fermented seasonings of Southeast Asia, like Thailand's nam pla or Vietnam's nuoc mam. In Asian countries where rice is the staple food, umami seasonings have been developed to add flavor to vegetables, seafood, and meat so that they would go well with steamed rice.
Umami is also widely present in Western food, oftentimes in the form of tomatoes. Tomatoes are essential in Italian cuisine, and many European dishes combine them with meat or seafood.
Umami is an Indispensable Part of Japanese Food
Umami, represented mainly by dashi, is fundamental in making delicious dishes. Gentle in flavor, it enhances the ingredients it is combined with. It may look simple, but it has a lot of depth; something characteristic of both Japanese cuisine and culture.
Here at Umami Recipe, we showcase authentic and easy-to-make Japanese recipes that you can try at home. We hope you enjoy making tasty and filling meals with our recipes.