Heston Blumenthal, the British chef behind the Fat Duck in Bray, first became aware of umami in around 2000. “I remember putting an ‘umami broth’ on our set lunch menu.” He laughs, “which is a bit like calling something a sour broth, but I wanted people to question what they were eating. It was a tomato consommé flavoured with white soy sauce, dried shiitake and kombu. We served it warm with a small piece of cured mackerel that we’d cooked sous vide.”
At that time, umami had barely entered the Western lexicon. But over the past few years, it has begun to creep out of professional kitchens and into the consciousness of home cooks through so-called “umami-bombs” that, in the form of miso, kimchi and tubes of mixed umami ingredients, have begun to appear on supermarket shelves around the world. All are designed to turn up the intensity of flavour.
Since humanity first put a lump of meat on a fire, cooks have been combining flavours in an attempt to create irresistible tastes. Then in 1907, a Japanese scientist had a go. Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo, decided to analyse his wife’s kombu dashi (kelp stock) to work out why it imbued his tofu with such a lovely savoury flavour. He narrowed it down to two amino acids – glutamate and, to a lesser extent, aspartate, both of which occur naturally in kelp (Laminaria japonica). He called what he had discovered “umami” – which, in Japanese, simply means “delicious taste”. A year later he patented a dry, powdered compound he’d developed, which he named ajinomoto or “essence of taste”. Today it is better known as monosodium L-glutamate or MSG, which is produced in the form of fine white crystals. Add a pinch to plain beef stew and the gravy will taste more intensely savoury.
Ikeda marketed his creation and, by the 1930s, many Japanese recipes included ajinomoto. It spread across Asia and became as indispensable as soy sauce. But Western scientists remained sceptical that Ikeda had discovered a new taste, possibly because his paper was only published in Japanese. They found the concept of savouriness hard to distinguish, unlike the four acknowledged tastes – bitter, sweet, sour and salty. Suck a lemon and it’s easy to recognise sourness. Drink some black coffee and its bitterness is obvious. But savouriness is usually tasted in conjunction with saltiness or sourness, for example in Parmesan cheese or tomato juice.
Nevertheless MSG continued to spread. During the second world war, the American armed forces realised that it was a cheap way to make flavourless rations taste better. Western food manufacturers recognised its commercial benefits and it crept into products from stock cubes to flavoured potato crisps. Ever wondered why Pringles coined the slogan, “Once you pop, you can’t stop”? Look at their ingredients.
It was not until the turn of the millennium that scientists established that we have specialised umami receptors in our mouths – cells which are sensitive to glutamate. They are stimulated when you take a bite of umami-rich food, whether in the form of added MSG, or in ingredients that naturally contain high levels of free glutamate, such as peas, dried shiitake mushrooms and reduced chicken stock. Umami also occurs naturally in salty or cured foods such as dried seaweed, smoked fish, Parma ham, blue cheese, miso paste, fermented yeast (Marmite)and fish sauce. A century later, Ikeda was proved right and umami became accepted as the fifth taste.
Blumenthal was one of the first Western chefs to concentrate on upping the umami level of his food. “I got quite obsessed by it, partly because there was very little useful information out there for chefs, so it made me research it more. I wanted to create dishes that captured a European savouriness.”
Now umami is entering our kitchens. Using naturally fermented grains and pulses, David Chang, an American chef, has developed a series of intense umami-tasting seasonings which he sells online. Umami Burger, an American restaurant chain, boosts the taste of burgers by serving them with umami-flavoured ingredients such as truffle cheese and miso-maple glazed bacon.
Bonnie Chung, a London-based food entrepreneur, founded Miso Tasty in 2014. Her products are now on shelves across the country, and she has recently published a cookbook of recipes involving miso. “I became fascinated by miso when I was working as a chef. I used to love making an instant snack for myself from miso paste and instant dashi. It was so good, I wanted to learn more and now I’m on a mission to convert everyone else,” she says.
In Japan the approach to cooking with umami is different. Shinobu Namae, the chef at L’Effervescence, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo, explains: “Umami has always existed naturally in Japanese cooking as we combine ingredients such as kombu and dried bonito flakes in dashi to enhance our perception of savouriness. In Europe and America, chefs tend to make umami by reducing down their ingredients such as stock to intensify the taste, whereas we add multiple layers of different types of umami to a dish.” Tuck into a plate of his roasted duck, which comes with shiitake mushrooms, curly-leaf spinach, scallop and toasted nori jus, and a guts and miso sauce, and you will find your mouth zinging with oceanic, earthy and salty-sweet umami tastes.
There is still debate as to how umami alters our perception of the other tastes. It has been found to increase salivation and many believe that it accentuates the savoury, salty and sweet nature of food. Anyone who has baked breadsticks will know that they become irresistible when flavoured with Parmesan.
There is some discussion about the effects of cooking with MSG. Both Chang and Blumenthal believe it can be beneficial if, say, one’s appetite has been dampened by illness or age. But MSG can cause migraines and hyper-activity; and some people disapprove of it on the grounds that good food should not need artificial flavouring.
While umami is still overwhelmingly associated with the savoury, it is starting to make inroads into the dessert menu. Take a bite out of one of Bonnie Chung’s chocolate miso brownies and your appreciation for the fifth taste will rise another notch.