The Fifth Taste
Umami has been nicknamed the “fifth taste,” and the word first appeared when Ikeda Kikunae, a Tokyo University professor, was studying kombu seaweed broth. He found that kombu couldn’t fall into the four categories of taste, and thus created a new word, umami (旨味; literally “good flavor”). Of course, this isn’t to say that umami didn’t exist before Professor Ikeda wrote about it! There just wasn’t a word for it until then, but umami has existed through the centuries in miso soup broths, tomato-rich pastas in Italy, and fish-sauce-based dishes from Southeast Asia.
Ikeda broke it down in his 1908 paper that umami comes from glutamate, a substance found in a variety of foods, including meats, fish, and certain vegetables. Others would come after him to write about more substances that create umami, including inosinic acid found in bonito flakes (the paper-like fish flakes you see on top of takoyaki).
Let’s break down umami into three aspects:
A full mouth experience that spreads across the entire tongue. This is in comparison to the other basic tastes. For example, sweetness is detected on the tip of the tongue, versus bitterness on the back of the tongue.
- A flavor that lingers in the mouth is umami.
- Umami triggers salivation, which helps us taste our food. Umami is thought to promote salivation for a longer period of time, adding to the mouth-watering experience.
Umami may be a little tricky to define, but we’re sure you can get a sense for it with some foods you may already be familiar with! Check out some umami-packed savory snacks below.