A category of taste in food (besides sweet, sour, salt, and bitter), corresponding to the flavour of glutamates, especially monosodium glutamate.
Often described as ‘that pleasant savoury taste’ umami is tasted through our receptors for the amino acid, glutamic acid. Naturally occurring in many foods, such as tomatoes, aged and cured meats and Parmesan cheese, it was first isolated in crystal form from the evaporation of kombu (kelp) broth. The white powder on dried kombu is glutamate don’t wash it off! Seaweeds (especially dried) are a condensed source of umami in different levels and are a fantastic way to naturally add that elusive umami flavour into your cooking. Drying and infusing (in broths, soups, milks etc.) seems to be the most efficient way to extract umami flavour at home but even the simple addition of some fresh seaweed to a dish can up the umami and therefore overall taste.
The sodium salt form of glutamic acid is MSG, simply the amino acid with a single sodium molecule. MSG and umami are very closely related and MSG adds meaty depth of flavour to dishes, hence its original popularity. The condemnation of the additive over the last 50 years is slowly being reversed with the realisation that umami and MSG go hand in hand. But if the addition of MSG concerns you, there are plenty of naturally occurring sources of free glutamates you can add to your meals to boost flavour. Along with those above, try, fish and soy sauce, marmite, mushrooms, broccoli, walnuts and stocks made from meat bones.
photo: Aaron McLean