That thing called umami

Give a bottle-fed, four-month-old baby a sweet drink, courtesy of a 10% sucrose solution, and he will look content.

Swap sweet for sour, using a dash of lemon juice, and the baby will look decidedly unimpressed, wrinkling his nose and pursing his lips.

Then try out the nipper’s palate by substituting lemon for bitter melon juice. Cue head-shaking, frowning and the unambiguous sticking out of the tongue.

Now give the baby vegetable bouillon with 0.1% monosodium glutamate. He starts laughing his head off. Yum, yum.

Photos: Umami Information Centre

Photos: Umami Information Centre

Why is this?

Well, it’s all down to umami, the so-called fifth taste.

Breast milk is rich in glutamate, a key component of umami, and it is also contained in amniotic fluid, so humans get a taste for it (and umami) before they are born.

This much, and plenty more, I pick up at a fascinating presentation on umami at the Embassy of Japan in London.


Staged by the Umami Information Centre, the event is attended by chefs Jason Atherton (Pollen Street Social, Social Wine and Tapas, Berners Tavern etc) and Yoshihiro Murata (three Michelin stars at Kikunoi in Kyoto and director of the Japanese Culinary Academy), and Dr Kumiko Ninomiya, director of the Umami Information Centre.

Umami is, of course, at the heart of Japanese cooking, which just happens to be one of the top two cuisines currently obsessing me. The other is American barbecue, which also happens to be rich in umami characteristics.

The savoury yumminess of umami is found in Japanese staples such as bonito flakes and kelp, which make up the Japanese über stock, dashi. Umami is found in an array of foods including tomatoes, cheese, mushrooms, asparagus and onions.

It is not an exclusively Japanese taste quality, far from it. There are umami-rich foods all over the world: anchovies (Scandanavia); mole cooking sauce (Mexico); dried cod/bacalhau (Brazil); fish sauce/nam pla (Thailand); soy bean paste, soy sauce, fish-shrimp products (Korea); and Marmite and Bovril, or yeast extract (UK). The list goes on.

The only difference between the Japanese and most of the rest of the world appears to be the fact that the clued up home cooks and chefs of Japan have elevated umami to both a science and an art form.

In brief, the science consists of this: the dominant umami substances are the amino acid glutamate and the 5′-ribonucleotide: inosinate and guanylate.

Inosinate does not sound particularly appetising but it can be found in sardines, bonito, dried bonito, beef, pork and poultry. Guanylate is in dried mushrooms like porcini, shiitake and morels. Umami increases in food through ripening and fermentation. This is why aged beef, cured ham and mature cheese have fuller flavour.

And there’s another thing: the characteristics of umami are intensified  when glutamate is combined with inosinate or guanylate. This is known as umami synergy, or as I like to think of it: the umami knock out blow.

According to the Umami Information Centre, umami is at its most potent with a glutamate/inosinate ratio of 1:1. The proportion gives up to eight times the intensity of tasting glutamate or inosinate in isolation.

Umami is big business. Since 2001, there has been a six fold increase in the number of Japanese restaurants in London; there are now 518, according to the Embassy of Japan. The British have a growing appetite for miso soup, ramen, gyoza, tonkatsu and sushi.

Asked to sum up umami, Murata says: “You can feel the saliva coming out the side of your tongue.” Which is one way of saying “mouth-watering.”

But what does all this mean to Western chefs, particularly those schooled in the French cooking traditions that extol butter and cream-heavy sauces? Quite a lot, according to Atherton.

Umami presents the opportunity to create food with a “harder impact on the palate. Intensity of flavour is crucial,” says Atherton. Take a potato. You can make it taste more like a potato by boiling it in dash’ stock rather than water.

The chef said his time spent at the celebrated El Bulli taught him to question everything about food, to be creative and look at different cultures.

Atherton discloses that one of the main things diners have been raving about at his new Social Wine & Tapas is his carrots. Yes, carrots. They just happen to be coated in an umami-rich miso paste.

Umami-inspired cooking allows chefs to reduce the salt content of dishes and cut calories by scaling back cream and butter by using bouillon and ingredients that are rich in umami.

The proof is in the pudding, or in this case the bento box.


The boxes are handed out to attendees at the umami symposium, including Yotam Ottolenghi, who is sitting next to me. It’s upscale tasting, with six nibbles from some of London’s top Japanese kitchens: Nobu; Dinings; Kikuchi; Kiru; Yashin; and Zuma.


The savoury mouthfuls, from top left (clockwise), are: grilled black cod marinated in vegetable miso (Nobu); sous-vide scallops with tomato-tosazu (Dinings); dashi-simmered chicken and mushroom (Kikuchi); kombu and moulded rice, cured lamb with mushroom soy sauce (Kiru); eel marinated in Marmite with tamarillo vinegar rice roll (Yashin); and turnip and chicken mince simmered in dash (Zuma).

My top prize goes to Yasuhiro Mineno and Shinya Ikeda at Yashin for the eel.

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