What Is Umami?

It’s the taste you didn’t learn about in school.

stack of smashburgers with cheese
Photo: AR Magazine

At an early age, we're taught that humans can detect four tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. As it turns out, that's not entirely accurate. (Remember that tongue map thing)? Humans can actually detect five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.

What Is Umami?

We likely encounter umami every single day, but it's kind of a still a mystery to most of us.

Umami is the most recently identified and accepted of the basic tastes. It's found in a variety of foods like nightshades, cheese, and meat, but all umami foods have one thing in common: They contain amino acids called glutamates, which are commonly added to some foods in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Umami's history is as old as food itself. However, it wasn't until the 20th century that the taste was singled out.

The name "umami" didn't come around until 1908, when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda pinpointed the presence of glutamic acid in foods with the specific characteristics he was trying to identify. He named the taste "umami" which is Japanese for "good flavor."

What Does Umami Taste Like?

Umami describes food that are savory, earthy, and meaty. You can taste it in foods like meat broths, some cheeses, miso, seaweed, and mushrooms. Umami's taste is relatively mild, but it does have an aftertaste. For some people, it can cause salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue.

Umami Foods

Some umami-rich foods are: miso, Parmesan cheese, kimchi, Vegemite, Roquefort cheese, dry-cured ham, shitake mushrooms, anchovies, tomatoes, oysters, scallops, soy sauce, clams, corn, and potatoes.

Umami Recipes

Parmesan-Roasted Tomatoes on a baking sheet
Butch Chandler

Get the recipe: Parmesan-Roasted Tomatoes

"Love this side dish, " says Angelia. "I eat them with fried eggs for breakfast. Also if doing dinner side instead of just salt and pepper I use Italian seasoning. So delicious."

Sicilian Spaghetti
Photo by Buckwheat Queen.

Get the recipe: Sicilian Spaghetti

"This is an easy recipe that provides a very tasty good base for some creativity, shares home cook 2chefs. "I added sliced mushrooms and sliced baby sweet bell peppers to the olive oil along with a small pat of unsalted butter, and sautéed them for a while before adding the fresh garlic and anchovies."

close up view of Chorizo Steamed Clams with onions, fresh herbs and a slice of toast, in a white bowl
Chef John

Get the recipe: Chorizo Steamed Clams

"This turned out to be outstanding," raves reviewer Jack. "I did not have any chorizo so I used Andouille sausage instead and it came out better than any clam dish I ever had."


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