Trend Alert: The ‘Fifth Taste’ Is Coming On Strong, As More People Say I Want My Umami

fifthtastecoverMany trend forecasters predict this will be the year of umami — something that Kikkoman and the mushroom folks have been saying for awhile.  This time, I think it’s really true.

Umami (pronounced oo-MAH-mee) is the difficult to define “fifth taste” that joins the classic basic tastes of salty, sweet, bitter and sour.  Best described as savory, brothy, meaty and earthy —  the flavor can be found in foods like mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, asparagus, ripe tomatoes, seaweed, soy sauce and certain fish (including anchovies, sardines and shellfish) and meat –all foods that contain glutamate, an amino acid that imparts the umami taste.  (You can learn more by visiting  Umami Information Center.)

Taking its name from the Japanese words for “delicious” and “essence,” umami was identified in 1908 by a Tokyo chemist Kikunae Ikeda while researching the strong flavors in seaweed broth.  Ikeda was the first to isolate monosodium glutamate, which was the beginning of the commercial use of MSG — the ingredient that now so many people want to avoid in processed foods.

Ironically, people can’t get enough of the natural glutamates that give us umami.  Suddenly it’s cool to claim you’ve got umami.  The Mushroom Council’s brochure declares Umami:  If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It.

And indeed, a lot of people are now flaunting umami.  TrendCentral has done a great job of showcasing how umami has officially inflitrated the food scene.  And click here for an excellent review of the culinary applications of umami.

umamiburger5A traditional hamburger offers a hit of umami, with the combination of ground beef, ketchup and cheese.  But now you can bite into an amped up umami-infused hamburger at a restaurant in Los Angeles called Umami Burger — where you can order the Truffle Burger covered in Italian truffle cheese and truffle glaze, or the Port & Stilton Burger, slathered with blue cheese and port-caramelized onions.  You can find a mouth-watering review of Umami Burger on Serious Eats.


In Croton-on-Hudson, New York, you can visit the Umami Cafe, which offers a bit of umami in every menu item — including Truffled Mac & Cheese, Umami Salad with green papaya and jicama, African Curried Shrimp and Peking Duck Quesadillas.

Mixologists have been having a heyday with umami. At Mazu in San Francisco, you can sip a Black Samurai that offers a shot of umami with its subtle mix of soy sauce and sake. New York’s Apotheke shakes up a Tomato Basil Martini, made with gin, tomato-basilmartinipeppercorns, agave-lime nectar, hibiscus bitters and ripe cherry tomatoes.

Soy sauce is one of the most familiar umami condiments — but you can also get a dose of savory and earthy umami with Asian fish sauce, hoisin, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and various spices, including curry.

In London you can buy Taste No. 5 Umami Paste, created by London-based restaurateur and food writer Laura Santinni, which contains umami-rich ingredients such as Parmesan cheese, garlic, tomatoes, anchovies, black olives and Porcini mushrooms.  I think it won’t be long before we can buy similar products touting umami flavors.

So, are there any nutritional benefits of umami?  Well, maybe.  Some research indicates that umami-rich foods may increase satiety, or a feeling of fullness to help you eat less.  Umami also packs the flavor that MSG does, so chefs and food manufacturers may use more all-natural umami ingredients to create flavorful products instead of MSG (and with less sodium).  If properly used, umami highlights the sweetness, lessens bitterness and counterbalances saltiness in foods.

Umami may finally be going mainstream.  Even the Next Iron Chef had a Umami challenge.  Even if you couldn’t name it, some of today’s trendy foods are dense in umami — including bacon, meatballs, pork belly, smoked and cured meats, braised short ribs, pad thai, tangy fermented kimchee, nam pla and green tea.  Combining several umami ingredients creates what’s been dubbed the “U-Bomb,” offering an intense umami sensation that’s intensified by various cooking techniques.

I think we’re in store for a flavorful future with the increased popularity of umami.

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