When it comes to the sense of taste, we typically recognize four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. However, there is a fifth taste called “umami” (delicious in Japanese). Umami is a savory taste imparted by glutamate (a type of amino acid) which occurs naturally in various types of food including fish, meat, vegetables, and dairy products. The umami taste occurs when the glutamate molecule breaks down and it becomes L-glutamate. This happens when meat is being cooked on the stove, when parmesan cheese is being aged, or when soy sauce is being fermented.
The savory taste of umami is subtle and blends well with the other four tastes to develop and complete the flavor of the dish. Most people can’t distinguish umami when they taste it, but it certainly helps to enhance the dish’s overall flavor and make it delicious.
A renowned French chef in the late 1800s, Auguste Escoffier, invented veal stock and created meals that didn’t taste like any combination of the four basic tastes. However, it was Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda who discovered that the taste of umami was due to glutamate. He published an article about the fifth taste in a journal for the Chemical Society of Tokyo. When his findings were published, no one believed him. However, in 2002, scientists took a closer look at the human tongue and found out that there is indeed a fifth taste. They named it “umami” in honor of Ikeda.