Historically western medicine maintained that there were just four primary tastes - sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and bitterness - detectable by different receptors on specific areas of the tongue.
In 1908 Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University discovered a fifth taste, since proven to have its own distinct receptors. Studying the particular delectability of kombu dashi (seaweed broth), he discovered that the amino acid glutamate created a specific taste, different from sweet, sour, salty, or bitter. He named this taste umami, from the Japanese umai, or delicious, and mi, or essence.
This has been rather awkwardly translated into English as ‘pleasant savoury taste’, which probably explains why umami (oo-mah-mee) has become such an excellent English loanword. The concept of ‘savouriness’ – as in something that is not profoundly obvious but all the more precious because of it – is crucial to the appreciation of umami.
Glutamate has a long history in cooking. The fermented fish sauce, garum, was used so widely by Ancient Romans that it has been suggested they were addicted to it. In Asia fermented soy sauce and fish sauce have been used for thousands of years. Without knowing the chemical source of it, Auguste Escoffier created many umami-rich dishes. The umami plays an all-important ‘best supporting actor’ role, balancing and uplifting sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavours. A classic (and ancient) example of such a dish is the pan-Mediterranean preparation of roast leg of lamb with anchovies. The dish does not taste fishy, but the umami-rich anchovies add a delicious, impossible to define ‘completeness’ that would not be there without them.
Since umami was discovered in Japan, there is still a tendency to think of it as particularly Japanese, especially since miso and shiitake mushrooms are two of its best-known references. But there are just as many non-Japanese examples of classic umami-rich foods, including Parmesan cheese, which plays the key supporting role in so many great Italian dishes. Rich and succulent Dungeness crab, a Pacific Ocean specialty, is umami-rich, and B.C.’s leading chef educator, Julian Bond of the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, has shared his famous crab cake recipe here.
Umami is mentioned frequently in relation to wine, and there is a very important reason why. As wine quality is understood to be more a function of balance and complexity (than power and intensity), texture is valued more highly than ever as an indicator of top quality wine. It’s only natural that wines rich in umami should be more prominent.
California Master of Wine Tim Hanni, appropriately dubbed ‘the Swami of Umami’, first introduced the concept of umami to North Americans. He suggests that good ‘umami wines’ to try might include ripe-but-not-too-alcoholic Aussie Shiraz or rich, fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon, or even fat but not-too-oaky Chardonnay. Any mouthcoating wine has a higher umami quotient, and that coating texture can be fruit ripeness or concentration, sur lie creaminess, or boosted alcohol (as in fortified wine). Developed wine can have elements of umami as well – not so much the textural richness, but the savoury, mushroomy deliciousness that a great aged pinot noir or nebbiolo can possess.
The umami pairing rule is to generally avoid putting umami foods and wines together. Sometimes umami-rich food (parmesan cheese, mushroom dishes, or tuna) can clash with bold, mouth-coating tannins from grapes like cabernet sauvignon, or barrel-fermented whites like chardonnay that are packed umami deliciousness. Instead choose more mature wines with softened tannins, for umami-driven dishes.
*cover image courtesy of EdgyPlate