What The Heck Is Umami, Anyway?

Photographed by: Phoebe Chuason.

If you grew up in the Western world, you probably learned about the four tastes: salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. But there's a fifth taste that, for hundreds of years, has been well-known in Japan and has only recently been getting more attention in the West: umami.

Nearly literally meaning just "deliciousness," there's a chemical compound behind umami. It was first identified by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor of chemistry, in 1908, by extracting monosodium glutamate (a.k.a. MSG) from kelp.

Just like it's hard to describe exactly what "bitter" or "salty" is, "umami" can be hard to sum up. Often described as simply "savory," in the popular documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, Jiro and his son go a little deeper when explaining it. Experiences like sipping a good beer or getting into a hot bath, both things that can make you go, "Aaaah!"

Like other tastes, perhaps the only way to truly explain it is with a sort of circular definition: Umami is the flavor in umami-rich foods. Think beef, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and mushrooms.

These days, umami is such a sought-after flavor that entire restaurants are devoted to getting that umami taste. The most obvious example is, naturally, Umami Burger, where glutamates like mushrooms and parmesan crisps are added to burgers to beef up (pun intended) the meaty taste. Can't make it to an Umami Burger? Here are three recipes that will give you plenty of umami punch from home:

Portobello-Avocado Tacos
Breakfast-For-Lunch Bowl
Pasta Puttanesca