What Is Umami Flavor?

Some people think that umami is just the noise you make when you eat something delicious. Like when you bite into a burger and say, “Ooh, mommy! That’s a tasty burg!” Well, those people are wrong. Umami flavor is so much more than that. But what exactly is umami flavor? What does umami flavor mean? Let’s get a taste of what umami flavor really is.

What is umami flavor?

Umami is the newest of the five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. Umami was “discovered” by a Tokyo chemist in 1908. In 1985, scientists recognized the term umami as a way to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides. In 2002, umami taste receptors were discovered on our tongues. So what exactly does umami flavor mean? Well it can be hard to describe and people seem to process it differently. But at its base, umami flavor is savory. The essence of savoriness. The word umami in Japanese means “a pleasant savory taste.” How do you describe umami flavor? It’s a rich, brothy, meaty flavor, even though it can appear in non-meat foods. 

What are umami flavors? 

Umami flavor is that savory taste that can appear in meats and fermented foods. Umami is the taste of the amino acid glutamate, which is a building block of protein. So, foods high in glutamate produce the most umami flavor. Of course that includes cooked and cured meats, but that’s not all. Some of the other umami-rich foods include parmesan cheese, seaweed, miso, mushrooms, and even tomatoes. Umami flavor is also present in fermented foods like fish sauce, soy sauce, and kimchi

Some people associate umami with MSG or monosodium glutamate. To be clear, MSG has umami flavor, but umami is not MSG. Just because something has the umami flavor does not mean it has the food additive msg. Not that there’s anything wrong with MSG. While some folks have reported headaches, bloating, or other symptoms when consuming MSG, there are no conclusive studies that actually link MSG to any adverse health effects. 

That said, the discovery of umami did lead to the creation of MSG. Kikunae Ikeda, the man who first defined umami in 1908, wanted a way to give people the essence of umami in their cooking. This led to the creation of monosodium glutamate as a food additive. 

How to best describe umami flavor? Well, think about meat, tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and mushrooms. Umami is that savoriness that makes those diverse foods somewhat similar. The next time you find yourself “yumming” over a hunk of parm, remember umami. Because, ooh, mommy, it’s a good flavor. 

About the Author

Will Morgan

Will Morgan, a freelance contributor to Sporked, is an L.A. based writer, actor, and sketch comedy guy. Originally from Houston, TX, he strongly believes in the superiority of breakfast tacos to breakfast burritos. Will traveled the world as one of those people that did yoyo shows at elementary school assemblies, always making a point to find local and regional foods to explore in whatever place he was, even in rinky-dink towns like Tilsonberg, ON. Will spends his birthdays at Benihana’s. Let him know if can make it.

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