The Japanese didn’t invent what has come to be known as the “fifth flavor” – besides the well-known sweet, sour, bitter and salty – but a Japanese man named it: umami.
In 1907, during the first few decades of modern Japan, a chemist at Tokyo’s Imperial University named Kikunae Ikeda had an insight that the flavor of one of Japan’s staple foods – the broth called dashi, a basic ingredient in countless soups, sauces and stews – had a quality that, chemically and gastronomically, qualified it as a distinctive flavor.
By 1908, Ikeda had isolated the chemicals, the salts of glutamates, an amino acid, and given his discovery a new name: umami, a word combining the kanji for delicious (umai) and taste (mi). By 1909, he had developed a chemical process for isolating the brown crystals that contained the flavor: L-glutamate.
Ikeda’s discovery was scientific proof of what the Japanese, and chefs the world around, had known for centuries: that there is a “brothy” or “meaty” taste to some foods, particularly meats, seafoods, cheeses and fermented foods, that is uniquely satisfying. The presence of umami can add dimension to foods, balancing out other flavors – especially salt, but also sweet – and giving dishes a depth and satiation factor.
Subsequent Japanese chemists such as Shintaro Kodama (a student of Ikeda’s) and much later, Akira Kuninaka, discovered other foods that contained the chemical elements of umami, including dashi’s main ingredient, bonito flakes, and much later, shitake mushrooms. Kuninaka added greatly to the research when he proved that it was the chemical synergy between ribonucleotides and L-glutamate that created even stronger umami flavors.
It wasn’t until 2000, when scientists found receptors in the tongue that responded specifically to umami chemicals that the taste was joined to the other four basic tastes. Before that, umami was generally thought to be something that enhanced other flavors, but was not itself distinctive.
It was the combining of certain foods – what chemists call components but cooks know as ingredients – that produced umami flavor by reinforcing and thus strengthening each ingredient’s umami quality. This is why meats and vegetables create such satisfying flavors, whether in a French ratatouille or a Vietnamese pho. Potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, asparagus, mushrooms, walnuts…all can, when combined with the right other ingredients, produce an umami flavor. Elsewhere, umami is the dominant flavor of one of the world’s most common food bases: chicken broth, which gets its umami from the chicken bones. Likewise, tomato sauces are full of L-glutamine, and when combined with, say, a parmesan cheese…umami!
Because of the ubiquity of dashi, the Japanese are familiar with the flavor as its own unique self. It is particularly fitting that umami is a Japanese word, because the Japanese are particularly fond of this flavor, it being prominent in such staple foods and sauces as soy sauce, fish sauce, dried fish, seaweed, pickled plums – and that stand-by beverage of any Japanese meal, green tea.
Similarly, the fermented vegetables that are so popular here are umami because of the combination of various vegetables with the yeast or bacteria that ferment them. Cured meats and aged cheeses, which are not Japanese in origin, but which many Japanese love, are umami – as if anyone had to tell you that.
Like fermenting and curing, cooking is a significant aspect of the development of umami flavors: raw meat isn’t umami, nor are many vegetables; but put them in a pot and let them cook – preferably for a long time – and the umami flavors burst out. It’s chemistry.
That said, it may be that virtually all humans respond to umami flavors because we are given food with a strong umami flavor from the moment we are born: Breast milk has approximately the same quality and quantity of umami components as a hearty broth.
Ikeda’s discovery was not confirmed by Western scientists for many years, long after his death in 1936, but he is not to be pitied: He quickly realized the value of what he had found. He took the chemical that he had isolated and packaged it as a cooking ingredient that quickly became a staple seasoning in Japan and all over Asia and the world: Monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
MSG was particularly popular in its “home” country: When in 1986, Westerners were asked to list the basic tastes, they listed sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But when Japanese were asked the same question, they answered sweet, sour, salty and bitter…and “Ajinomoto,” the commercial name for the global brand of L-glutamate crystals that Ikeda manufactured. And although Ikeda is long departed, the company he founded has its name on Tokyo’s biggest baseball park: Ajinomoto Stadium.