Children are told that there are four basic tastes, and that they each have a spot on the human tongue where they can be perceived the most. This ‘taste map’ features not just in kids’ picture-books, but also biology texts. It’s also probably wrong. It is now widely accepted that there are not four, but five basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.
So, What’s Umami?
Umami is the dark flavor that one may find in ingredients like soy sauce, aged cheese, mushrooms, seaweed, and ripe tomato. It’s an intense flavor that makes food addictive – and yes, it’s also a key part of the infamous MSG. Monosodium glutamate is the only ingredient that has this flavour in isolation. Unlike the other four tastes, which can be found everywhere in nature, umami is subtle and rare. It exists in compounds called glutamates and nucleotides.
- Kombu seaweed
- Parmesan cheese
- Aged cheese
- Cured meat
Why Is It So Hard To Describe?
We instantly know what a sugary drink would taste like, because sweetness is a distinct taste. The effect of umami, however, is more than just the taste. It is a rich mouthfeel that can be perceived as a coating around the mouth. It is not easy to spot the flavour when you first learn about it, but the difference between a dish with MSG and without MSG can be felt pretty clearly.
Sidenote: Is Msg Bad For Me?
While it should be completely avoided by people allergic to it, consumption of MSG is okay for most people. In moderation, it can be a great flavour-booster that makes food feel richer and more filling. Like most things, in excess, it can be harmful.
How Can I Bring More Umami In My Life?
MSG is not the only way you can add umami to your dish. The key to a full umami experience is achieving ‘umami synergy’. In his book Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste, Ole Mouristen writes that a combination of glutamate and nucleotide can make your dish eight times more flavourful than mere glutamate. And now we know why dishes like bacon and eggs or meat with mushrooms are such flavor-bombs.