Umami is difficult to describe in just one word; it is a pleasant, hearty, savory, tongue-coating sensation. And because it is so complex - a taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products - the taste blends well with other tastes to round out the flavors. This is why it’s hard to describe the delicious flavor of chicken soup.
Umami is a relatively new concept to most Americans, but this taste has been known for more than 100 years in some parts of Europe and Japan, where chemist Kikunae Ikeda is credited with identifying the taste. Ikeda analyzed the active ingredients in kelp stock, a staple of Japanese cuisine, and discovered that the delectable taste was associated with glutamate. Glutamate is also present in other savory foods, including those used in Western cuisine, like tomatoes, mushrooms, asparagus, cheese and meat.
Ikeda later developed and patented a method of making monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a processed additive that adds umami taste to food, much like sugar makes things taste sweet. In this country, MSG is not looked upon favorably. There are as many discussions against the use of MSG as there are for the use of MSG to flavor foods.
Hanne Siversten, a UC Davis specialist with the Department of Food Science and Technology explains, “MSG does not taste like much alone, but added to foods, it shows synergistic effects. This means that new flavors appear, as a reaction between MSG and the food itself.”
The taste of umami works much the same way. And since it is an experience naturally occurring from compounds found in many foods, you don’t have to add MSG to understand the taste. You probably eat umami-rich foods every day. Who doesn’t like their spaghetti sauce with a little parmesan cheese? Or cheese and bacon on their hamburger? These combinations ramp up the flavor of the whole meal. Check out the Umami Information Center (http://www.umamiinfo.com/), a great online resource for Umami information, facts and recipes.