Those who haven’t been living under a rock for or forgone the practice of eating food for the past few years may have heard of a sneaky little ineffable term – umami. We’ll be the first to admit that when somebody mentions umami, we just mindlessly nod our heads in agreement, as if to say, “Yes, we understand what umami is and we agree with everything you just said about it.” We do this, naturally, because we have no clue what umami really is. Well, that was the case until just recently, when we finally gathered the courage and willpower to find out.
First thing’s first, let’s dispel a few misconceptions: umami is not MSG (Monosodium glutamate). MSG, however, is umami. How is this possible? Well, umami is a certain quality that food can possess. It is one of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and, finally, umami. Like the four other tastes, specific receptors on the tongue light up whenever they touch something umami. There is a certain amount of umami in most everyday foods. It is just a little bit more difficult to single out than the other four tastes. Some common foods rich in umami are aged cheeses, mushrooms, tomatoes, cured meats, salmon, steak, green tea, and anchovies. There are many more, of course.
Technically speaking, umami is the taste of the amino acid ‘glutamate’, one of the components of protein. It is commonly held that umami has a few certain characteristics: a tongue-coating sensation, a sensation of mouth fullness, a long-lasting halflife, a balanced taste, it stimulates a feeling of mouthwatering, and it brings about a sensation of complexity to the food. In many cases, it is what makes a certain meal feel that much richer and more intricate than other meals.