What is Umami?

Everything you need to know. We look into what foods are rich in umami and the effect it has on taste

Umami Burger

Umami, the fifth taste

Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter taste sensations. It’s most commonly defined as “savoury”, but the characteristics of umami can also be described as “meaty”, “complex” or even just “deliciousness”. A Japanese word, umami is pronounced: “oo-ma-mee”.

Sometimes umami is wrongly thought to mean a harmonious combination of flavours in a dish, but in fact umami is completely separate to the four other taste sensations.

Our taste receptors pick up umami from foods that contain high levels of amino acid glutamate.

Umami FAQs

​What does umami taste of?

The savoury taste of umami is often associated with roasted meats and long slow stocks made from scratch.

It can be hard to taste umami on its own, but you would know if it wasn’t there, which is why it’s so important to chefs and food manufacturers to produce a balanced, rounded dish. It’s the thing that makes you go “mmmm”. Food that lacks umami is simply a bit bland and flat.

When was umami discovered?

Umami was discovered in 1908 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist at Tokyo Imperial University. He noticed a particular “savoury” taste in certain foods such as dashi, asparagus, cheese, tomatoes and meat that were neither sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Having found that the Japanese stock dashi had the most pronounced savoury taste, he focused on kombu - the seaweed used to make dashi. After conducting much research, Ikeda went on to identify glutamate, an amino acid, as the origin of this new savoury taste sensation and called it “umami”.

Professor Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist at Tokyo Imperial University.


What is umami exactly?

Scientifically, the intense umami savoury taste is imparted by glutamates and five ribonucleotides, which occur naturally in fish, meat, vegetables and dairy products.

The food enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) is also associated with umami as glutamate is the most common umami compound and occurs naturally in a wide variety of ingredients. It’s not actually a chemical as many people believe. The other two compounds that deliver umami are Inosinate, found in meat, fish and seaweed, and Guanylate, found mainly in plants and fungi.

The role of these umami compounds is mainly to do with mouth feel, adding body to the culinary experience, and in the case of roasted meats, umami has a deep ‘broth’ like taste. The crusty outside of a browned roast, is a good source of umami which is why we’re taught to brown or caramelise meat in a pan before adding to stews etc.

The crux of umami is that, like salt, it not only gives us pleasure in the food in which it is abundant, but it also allows us to gain greater pleasure from other foods on the plate, particularly proteins. At its best, it awakens our taste buds, to appreciate a whole range of flavours.

​What foods are umami?

Umami-rich ingredients can often be found in the store cupboard and are part of everyday cooking. Examples of umami foods are: naturally brewed soy sauce like Kikkoman, Marmite, anchovy relish, miso, tomato puree, fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Other umami-rich food sources are beef, pork, chicken, mackerel, tuna, crab, squid, salted anchovies, seaweed, tomatoes, parmesan cheese, mushrooms (particularly shiitake & porcini/ceps) and even green tea. When umami foods are used, especially in combination with each other, the results are quite intense.

It’s important to understand that it’s slow cooking or ageing that makes these foods umami. For example, raw meat and mushrooms aren’t very umami, but cooking, curing or fermenting helps to release the key amino acids that our taste receptors pick up as umami.

Why is umami so important?

Combining two umami-rich ingredients does far more than double the umami factor. It can quadruple the specific, gratifyingly savoury element. Ever wondered why a grilled beefburger topped with cheese and tomato ketchup is so irresistible? The more umami ingredients that is used in a dish can even make a relatively small portion seem bigger than it actually is. Clever stuff!

This is why the appreciation of umami is widely regarded by chefs and the food industry. Without umami, the taste can be rather one dimensional.


Why is Kikkoman soy sauce liquid umami?

Kikkoman Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce has over 350 years of Japanese heritage and is still made to the same recipe today using just four pure ingredients – soybeans, wheat, salt and water – and no artificial additives whatsoever. The unique fermentation process takes several months which produces high levels of natural umami – something which the Chinese-style Light and Dark soy sauces simply don’t have.

Kikkoman soy sauce is easy to combine with other umami-rich ingredients to really bring out the flavours. It is particularly useful for adding depth of flavour to vegan foods such as tofu which can otherwise be very subtle in taste. Umami-rich Kikkoman also skilfully elevates sauces and gravies without overpowering, and even small amounts can have a role to play in balancing desserts and cocktails too! It’s truly a kitchen essential and much more than just a seasoning for sushi and stir fries!

Become a soy sauce connoisseur and use your sight, smell, taste and touch to fully experience what makes Kikkoman the best soy sauce - learn how in this guide to its sensational quality.


Umami Recipes

If you want to experience some umami-packed dishes try these flavourful recipes made with a combination of umami ingredients.

Tagliatelle with Tomato Sauce
1 hour 30 mins 4
  • vegetarian
Umami Beef Burgers
40 mins 4
  • meat
Mushroom soup
40 mins 4
  • meat
Video Mushroom Carbonara
30 mins 4
  • vegetarian
Quick Umami Bolognese
40 mins 4
  • meat
Teriyaki Tofu and Hijiki Patties
45 mins Makes 12 patties
Tim Anderson
One-hour spicy miso ramen
50 mins 4
  • meat
Tim Anderson
Sweet Ginger Meatballs
40 mins 4
  • meat
Video Cornish pasties
1 hour 25 mins 4
  • meat
Dean Edwards
Video Mushroom pasta bake
40 mins 4
  • vegetarian
Dean Edwards
Video Ultimate umami burger
1 hour 45 mins 4
  • meat
Dean Edwards
Umami beef pie with cheesy mushroom mash
5 hours 25 mins 4
  • meat
Tim Anderson
Video Miso and Honey Roast Aubergines
30 mins 4
  • vegetarian
Lisa Faulkner
Video Pork Meatballs with Linguine
1 hour 30 mins 4
  • meat
  • Low Salt
Lisa Faulkner

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