Shut Up! There’s a Fifth Flavor?

Everyone knows the tastes our tongues can sense: sweet, sour, bitter, salty. Chances are that you could rattle them off in kindergarten. But many people aren’t aware of a fifth sense: umami.

Found in the sour tang you get when you bite into a ripe tomato, umami (pronounced oo-mommy) can be translated from Japanese as a “pleasant savory taste.” You’re probably already enjoying the tastes of umami in foods like mushrooms, truffles, green tea, Parmesan cheese, and seaweed without even realizing it.

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Image from umamiburger.com.

Umami can also present itself in the form of MSG. Specifically, it comes from glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, which naturally exist in meat, fish, vegetables, and dairy products.

Often, Japanese food is noted for its strong umami piquancy, particularly when found in dashi—a rich stock made from kelp that is widely used as a flavor base in Japanese cuisine. The taste of umami alone is subtle, but when paired with other ingredients, the flavor is intensified.

Recently, the fifth sense spurred a heightened interest within the food industry and newly-founded restaurants began experimenting with umami. In 2009, Adam Fleischman founded Umami Burger in La Brea, California. Today, branches have also expanded to Las Vegas, New York City, and Chicago—plus, the chain sells its umami seasonings and sauces online.

Seeking out umami flavors may even make your food more satisfying. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating soup with umami in the form of MSG can help make you feel fuller for longer. 

—Katharine Lofblad, senior editor at Baked. Follow Katie on Twitter @katielofblad.

This story was originally featured in Baked’s Fall 2014 issue. To read more, click here.

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