Although it may seem like a new phenomenon, Umami is a taste that has been enjoyed in East Asia for more than a hundred years.
What is Umami?
Umami (pronounced u-ma-mi) is one of the five basic tastes, joining sweet, salty, sour and bitter. While we as human beings have developed to sense danger from sour or bitter foods, and energy from sweet foods, umami serves as a signal to the body that we have consumed protein. Sensing umami triggers the secretion of saliva and digestive juices, facilitating the smooth digestion of protein.
What does Umami taste like?
Umami is a naturally occurring flavour enhancer, roughly meaning 'deliciousness' in Japanese. It is used to describe the pleasant savoury taste found in mushrooms, parmesan, and of course; Seaweed. Seaweeds, and in particular Kelp, are an excellent source of glutamates, which are amino acids that react with receptors on the tongue to create the umami taste.
Umami was discovered in 1908 by a Japanese professor, Kikunae Ikeda, who was determined to find out what gave his seaweed soup its intense, savoury flavour. He succeeded in isolating this flavour from the kelp-based dashi and named it Umami. Ikeda was keen to commercialise this extraordinary taste, and quickly found a way to combine the glutamates with sodium, to form Monosodium Glutamate, also known as the infamous flavour-enhancer, MSG.
How can I get that Umami taste?
Seaweeds (especially dried) are a condensed natural source of umami and are a fantastic way to naturally add that elusive umami flavour into your cooking. Adding dried seaweed flakes into dishes such as broths, soups and stews seems to be the most efficient way to extract umami flavour at home but even the simple addition of some fresh seaweed to a dish can up the umami and therefore overall taste.
Even babies love umami!
From the moment they are born, babies develop a taste for umami. Human breast milk is high in glutamates, signalling that this is a safe food for them to eat. Researchers in Japan tested babies facial responses to the different tastes, (leaving out salty for the babies' health) and found that they gave the same calm and happy response to vegetable soup with umami as they did to sweet.
Tips for amplifying the umami flavour of your food:
Add a spoon of our dried kelp flakes to soup or stock while cooking.
Sprinkle Alaria Flakes over your scrambled eggs in the morning instead of salt.
Chop up some Sea Spaghetti and add it to your favourite pasta dish while cooking.
Why not check out our recipe pages to find more umami inspiration.
For more information on Umami, check out the Umami Information Centre.