Japanese chemist and university professor Kikunae Ikeda first took scientific notice of umami as a distinct taste in 1908. His wife-and almost all Japanese people-used a seaweed called kombu to prepare a type of soup called dashi.
Ikeda realized that this plant’s taste did not fit into any of the categories of sweet, salty, bitter, or sour that humans are capable of picking up, so the scientist began to look for what caused it.
Working with dried kombu, he isolated a compound called glutamic acid, one of the amino acids that make up proteins, which Ikeda discovered is responsible for the fifth taste and named it umami. The term is a fusion of two Japanese words: umai, which means “delicious,” and mi, which translates as “taste. The chemist then combined glutamic acid with sodium to convert the substance into a seasoning, thus obtaining monosodium glutamate. In July 1909, Ikeda received a patent for the seasoning agent.
That same year, he teamed up with Japanese businessman Saburosuke Suzuki to launch the Ajinomoto company–which means “essence of flavor”–and sell umami on a large scale.
In some 130 countries, Diners season their food with something very similar to salt, but which tastes very different. They put mushroom powder seasoning or white crystals on the table that look like sodium chloride (NaCl) but have a more complicated name: monosodium glutamate (C5H8NO4Na).
The fifth type of taste that humans perceive and sweet, salty, sour, and bitter is the umami taste, which is mild but leaves a long aftertaste challenging to describe. It induces salivation and produces a mild sensation on the tongue, stimulating the throat and palate. Umami cannot be tested or identified by itself, but it makes a wide variety of foods more pleasurable.
Taste buds have special receptors for MSG and other amino acids that also produce this sensation. Like different basic tastes (except for “sweet”), umami is only pleasurable up to a specific concentration. To be perceived optimally, it requires that the product has a certain level of salt.
But umami is not just about Japanese cuisine. This flavor is naturally present in many foods; it is frequent in ripe tomatoes, spinach, sardines, seaweed, mushrooms, cheese, tomatoes, soy sauce, human breast milk, cured cheeses, cured ham (Iberian ham is a world reference in this flavor), anchovies, many types of meat and mushrooms. It is an earthy flavor that is more likely to be associated with the heart than fruit.
Umami helps enhance the flavor of the ingredients with which it is combined or the dishes to which it is added. An easy example is found in sauces to which anchovies are added (rich in umami) or broths enriched with a stone. We gain the flavor of this ingredient that we add, but the rest of the components of the dish are enhanced and elevated. If you add mushroom powder seasoning to a soup, its flavor will be thicker, more substantial.