A hamburger from Umami Burger includes shiitake mushroom, caramelized onion, roasted tomato, and parmesan crisp (Photo: Jun Seita)
What is umami? Scientifically speaking, it is the fifth basic taste, in addition to the traditional four: bitter, salty, sour, and sweet. It’s often described as a sensation of robustness, and it’s naturally plentiful in cheeses, tomatoes, and beef, as well as other foods including potatoes and pork. (There’s a biological reason we like bacon cheeseburgers, parmesan on our pasta, and ketchup on fries). But almost everything about umami suggests a kind of cultural-biological mystery, a food riddle we’re still trying to solve.
The word, Japanese for “delicious taste,” is evocative to Western ears, but the usual English synonyms—savoriness, meatiness, brothiness—are vague. While it has always been a force in flavor, umami itself was identified just a century ago, when a Japanese scientist became fascinated by the richness of his kelp broth and isolated the ingredient that triggered it, the salt of glutamate, a type of amino acid present in many foods. Only recently has it broken out as an American taste trend, reflected in everything from savory cocktails to the rise of a chain called Umami Burger.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John McQuaid explores the history, biology, and culinary art of this unique sensation, and the role umami will play in the future of food and flavor. McQuaid is the author of Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat.
John McQuaid digs into the scientific and sensory mysteries of umami in this article for Slate.com.