Discovering the “Fifth Taste”

“Those who pay careful attention to their tastebuds will discover in the complex flavor of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet or sour or salty or bitter.”

So said
 Dr. Kikunae Ikeda at the 8th International Congress of Applied Chemistry, held in Washington, D.C., in 1912.

Dashi stock made from kombu (kelp) had long been an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine. And it didn’t take a scientist to know that the active ingredients contained within kombu held the key to its delicious flavor.

Dr. Ikeda, of Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) undertook research to ascertain the true nature of this “deliciousness.” In 1908, he succeeded in extracting glutamate from kombu. He discovered that glutamate (or glutamic acid) was the main active ingredient in kombu and coined the term “umami” to describe its flavor.

When we eat, we use all of our available senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste) to form general judgments about our food. But it is taste that is the most influential in determining how delicious a food is.

It has long been thought that our sense of taste is comprised of four basic or “primary” tastes which cannot be replicated by mixing together any of the other primaries (sweet, sour, salt and bitter). However, it is now known that there is a fifth primary taste: umami.

Taking its name from the Japanese language, umami is a pleasant savory flavor imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. Think of that savory flavor we experience in aged cheeses or cooked mushrooms.

As the flavor of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other flavors to expand and round out flavors, most of us don’t recognize umami when we encounter it—but it plays an important role in making food taste delicious.

Umami is used in various forms all over the world. In Asia, it’s mainly found in beans and grain, fermented seafood-based products, shiitake mushrooms, kombu and dried seafood.

In Western cuisine, there also are fermented or cured products derived from meat and dairy products, mainly ham and cheese. The best-known ingredient is the tomato.

What kind of wine should one drink with umami-influenced dishes? The same type one pairs with salty fare: one with low alcohol and crisp acidity, such as Riesling and some bottlings of Pinot Noir.

Tomorrow: a tasty recipe to help us become more familiar with the concept and flavors of umami.


Do you have experience with umami? What have you learned? Have you tried pairing umami-influenced dishes with wine? We’d love to hear about it in the Comments box below.

Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes
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