Thursday, September 18, 2008
While attempting to describe the flavors of a particular sake to our customers at SAKAYA, we sometimes use the word "umami." What exactly is "umami"? The four basic elements of taste are sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness. Umami is a fifth element, whose taste is somewhat of a combination of the other four. Often referred to as "savory," it is easier to give examples of foods that have it than to describe it directly. Some umami flavored foods include dried shiitake, bonito flakes, Parmesan cheese, beef jerky, tomatoes, pepperoni, chorizo, and fish sauce.
Umami has a global history and is actually incorporated into a variety of dishes throughout world. In Asia, umami is mainly found in dried seafood products and dried mushrooms. In the West, umami is found in cured meats and cheeses. The ancient Romans used a fermented fish sauce called garem, which is similar to the fish sauce used in Southeast Asian cooking. The use of garem died out, but umami is still found in dishes using anchovies in pasta sauce, on pizza, etc.,
This distinctive umami taste was first identified specifically by a Japanese biochemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. He had wondered about the distinctive flavor of kombu dashi (stock made from a form of seaweed), an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine. He believed that something in the kombu accounted for the unique flavor that the dashi imparted to the Japanese dishes in which it was used. He found that kombu was extremely high in glutamate, successfully isolated the component from kombu, and named the flavor of the substance "umami."
Umami is directly attributable to the properties of glutamate, a type of amino acid, as well as several nucleotides. Glutamate is abundant in nature, and is a natural component of protein-containing foods such as meat, fish, milk, and vegetables. Aside from glutamate, umami taste is also attributed to nucleotides such as inosinate, which is found in meat and fish, and guanylate, which is often found in mushrooms. Some examples of the high glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate content found in foods considered to have umami (100g each): Kombu (3190mg glutamate), Katsuo Bushi/bonito flakes (700mg inosinate), Oysters (137mg glutamate), dried shiitake mushroom (71mg guanylate), tomatoes (246mg glutamate), soy beans (66mg glutamate), Parmesan cheese (1200ml glutamate).
In sake or wine, it is hard to determine exact amount of glutamate due to alcohol content and also the lack of standardized method of measurement. The approximate content of glutamate in sake is 180mg/1000ml and wine is 20 to 60mg/1000ml.
In both East and West, the flavor of umami is nothing new to our palate. Its name might be new to many outside of Japan, but the world is now discovering more about this fifth element of taste and gaining better understanding of how it enhances flavor combination in all types of dishes and beverages.