The French might define an unknown flavor as je ne sais quois, and New Orleans residents use the term lagniappe. Both terms refer to a little something extra, an undefinable flavor or something on the tip of the tongue that seems like an epiphany. The unknown flavor is actually umami, the fifth taste. The flavor that isn’t exactly sweet, sour, bitter, salty or any combination of those tastes.

History of Umami

Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered the flavor chemically in 1908 by isolating glutamate from the seaweed Laminaria japonica, an ingredient in dashi soup. Initially attracting little attention, the discovery was adopted by Japanese and Chinese cooks and the nascent food processing industry as a preservative and flavor enhancer.

  • L-glutamate is a natural amino acid found in protein.
  • Umami is a name that means yummy.
  • The flavor occurs naturally in tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, sea urchin, fermented foods, Parmesan cheese, soybeans and hundreds of other foods.
  • Umami alters perception to intensify other flavors.
  • Foods high in amino acids and umami include those that are cured, dried, roasted and aged.
  • Fish that swim actively break down proteins and release umami, so mackerel, tuna and salmon have strong flavor concentrations.

Umami synergy involves balancing flavors and amplifying the result so that it lingers longer than any single ingredient. Estimates suggest that a properly balanced umami taste can last up to eight times longer than the sum of the separate ingredients.

During the 1990s, MSG or Monosodium glutamate, received bad press, and diners began avoiding processed foods, often for valid reasons. Rumors that MSG caused headaches, depression, diabetes and high blood pressure became common. None of these claims has ever been proven scientifically, but the damage was done. An entire generation decided to brand MSG as the epitome of dangerous food additives despite extensive research that proved MSG was harmless.

Umami and L-glutamate occur naturally in foods. Modern scientific methods have confirmed that the tongue has taste receptors for the fifth taste, so MSG might return to grace. The ingredient continues to be used in thousands of products, but many consumers still worry about barrels of MSG lurking outside Chinese restaurants.

Marketing Craze for Umami

Restaurateurs can use umami in their marketing, and increasing numbers of independent and chain restaurants are doing so. Balanced flavors, classic food-preserving techniques and umami enjoy astonishingly positive press. Restaurants can educate their customers by promoting umami and increase customer loyalty, strengthen flavor and get diners excited about the umami concept. Key facts about umami and flavor-balancing include:

  • Fermentation has produced delicacies for generations, and these include beer, wine, cheese, kimchi, soy sauce and miso.
  • Useful bacteria break down foods and produce flavor-enhancing compounds.
  • Foods that are rich in glutamic acid taste delicious and are more satisfying, so diners can eat less and still be satisfied.
  • Molecular gastronomy has become increasingly popular, and MSG and calcium salts are often used in molecular preparations.
  • Building layers of flavor is a popular way to describe how chefs add umami to foods.

Diners are more sophisticated than ever, and restaurants can promote umami flavor in their foods through social media forums, mobile marketing and chef presentations to groups at demonstrations and cooking classes. Another ideal opportunity for marketing umami occurs at tasting events like wine tastings, pairing classes and food tastings.

Bacon Mania

Bacon mania is often a secret vice, and even some vegetarians fall off the wagon when faced with perfectly crisp and aromatic bacon. Popularized in low-carb diets, bacon is often added to sandwiches at national restaurant chains to draw customers.

Bacon contains six of the triggers that generate umami, which explains why the product is so addictive. Along with cured meats and cheeses, bacon encourages both unapologetic advocates and people who indulge as a guilty pleasure. Restaurants can use this information to create more flavorful dishes by using bacon or umami substitutes.

More than half of umami flavors come from meat, but vegetarian restaurants can add complex flavors to their dishes with fermented products and ingredients that are high in umami. For example, fermented bean curd and tofu provide higher concentrations of umami. Roasting mushrooms creates high levels of flavor that enhance vegetarian and vegan dishes.

Balancing flavors in meals and individual menu items is a great way to produce umami, the flavor that stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers. Aging foods, layering flavors and using strong ingredients to enhance flavor are classic techniques, and restaurants get tremendous benefits by explaining why these techniques create umami and more satisfying dining experiences.