Eat North Answers: What is umami?

Is umami just a buzzword?

In the past decade, the word “umami” has become one of the most popular terms in a food-lover's vocabulary.

Much like how the terms “farm-to-table” and “seasonal ingredients” have become commonplace in today’s culinary vernacular, “umami” may be a bit of a buzzword these days, but that doesn’t make the term any less useful for describing how something tastes. 

By most accounts, there are five universally accepted taste profiles: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. The first four are relatively self explanatory, and the fifth, well that’s why we’re here today. 

Technically speaking, umami is the taste of glutamate, which is an amino acid that is naturally produced in the body and is found in a number of everyday foods such as aged cheeses, tomatoes, mushrooms, salmon, and many more. When referring to the flavour description, umami is generally used to describe something that is savoury or meaty. 

The term itself was first coined in the early 20th century by a Japanese chemist who was attempting to identify the unique flavour in a bowl of kombu dashi, which he noted was distinctly different from the four basic tastes that were accepted at the time.

Some of the distinctive features of umami include its ability to produce a tongue-coating sensation, a complex flavour profile that lasts longer than other tastes, and a mouthwatering sensation.

With all of that said, if someone asks you to describe umami, you could also simply use the direct Japanese translation of the word, “the essence of deliciousness”.