My roommate, a fellow foodie, recently brought home a spice jar of Mushroom & Company “Multipurpose UMAMI Seasoning Blend” from Trader Joe’s. He was all excited about the health virtues of this “umami” stuff so I said, “Great – another mushroom thing to check out!”
Today, I began my researches and discovered quickly that, although mushrooms are part of the story, umami is not a food but chemicals in some foods that, when combined with other foods, make the flavor much more savory. Umami is known as the 5TH TASTE. Who knew?
Lots of people, it turns out.
Apparently, I totally missed the memo on this because Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda identified umami in 1908. He wondered why his cucumber soup tasted so good when kelp was added to it and, being a chemist, set about isolating the components of kombu, the seaweed used to make dashi soup base. (Dashi stock is made from a dried fish called bonito and dried kelp.)
Many of us learned in school that there are four basic tastes – sweet, salty, sour, and bitter – that mapped to regions on the tongue that relayed the taste sensation to the brain. All that is still true. But Ikeda found out over 100 years ago that there is, indeed, another unique taste which is very important for happiness and long life.
The word Ikeda chose to describe his discovery comes from two Japanese words: umai (delicious essence) and mi (taste). Others translate these as “pleasant, savory taste” or simply “yummy.”
Ikeda’s identification of umami led to the development of the commercialized version of umami: monosodium glutamate (MSG). This is the seasoning that makes Asian food so delicious and filling. Unfortunately, Chinese restaurants in America added too much MSG to their dishes. Some people had bad food reactions – headaches and nausea – and MSG acquired a very bad reputation which lingers to this day. Restaurants began to post signs that said, “No MSG” to soothe their clientele.
Kelp is made up of glutamate, a type of amino acid and ribonucleotides, which include inosinate and guanylate. MSG is the sodium salt found in glutamic acid. It occurs naturally in all kinds of foods, including tomatoes, grapes, cheese, and mushrooms.
When used in small amounts, glutamate enhances the flavor of almost any other food. When combined with other seasoning substances, the effect is magnified. Salivation increases and the taste buds tell the brain when enough is enough and it’s time to stop eating.
These properties of umami make it an excellent treatment for older folks who tend to lose their appetites as their saliva dries up. Patients of a wasting disease or someone who wants to lose weight may find benefits from adding a small amount of glutamate to the diet.
Ole G. Mouritsen, coauthor of the book Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste, believes that glutamate foods are completely safe for human consumption:
“MSG is MSG, no matter where it comes from. The MSG inside a sun-ripened tomato or a mature cheese is exactly the same as that produced in a factory.”
Canadian chef Susur Lee in Toronto explained why so many seafoods (including seaweeds) trigger the umami taste:
“In Chinese, they call it xian wei. It’s how we describe the sweetness of the ocean.”
Just look at how many oceanic delicacies provide umami:
- Bonito (fish)
- Dulse (seaweed)
- Fish Sauce
- Hamachi (fish)
- Kombu (edible algae)
- Sea Bream
- Sea Urchin
- Shrimp (fresh not frozen)
- Wakame (seaweed)
Many cheeses, meats, and vegetables are also rich sources of umami-promoting glutamate:
- Blue Cheese
- Parmigiano Reggiano (real Parmesan Cheese)
- Grass-Fed Beef
- Heritage Chickens
- Prosciutto di Parma
- Green Peas
- Green Tea
- Kimchi (a Korean side dish of salted and fermented vegetables)
- Lotus Root
- Marmite (yeast-based British food spread)
- Shiitake Mushrooms
- Soy Sauce
Researchers are finding that foods that taste like umami tell the brain the food is more satisfying which increases the odds that people will stop overeating. As mentioned before, umami also treats the opposite extreme, producing more saliva flow and making foods more appealing to the palette, helping those with diminished appetites who need to gain weight.
Scientists also say that using umami foods reduces the amount of salt people use which is good for anyone watching their sodium intake.
I took a sniff of the umami seasoning mix my pal got and, boy howdy, it smells GOOD! The ingredients list kosher salt, dried porcini and white button mushrooms, dried onion, mustard seed, red and black pepper, and thyme.
What’s not to like? Looking forward to trying it on anything that doesn’t crawl away fast enough.