By Carlynn Woolsey, Foodable Contributor
When it comes to tasting our food, it can be pretty easy to distinguish between the four main sensations — salty, sweet, sour, and bitter — but what about umami, the fifth sensation that, as of late, is taking the culinary world by storm? Umami is derived from the Japanese word for “delicious/tasty” (umami) and literally translates to “pleasant savory taste.” While consumers are still catching on to this taste sensation, chefs and mixologists have been toying with the concept for several years now, with no signs of stopping any time soon.
Umami came about in 1908 as the result of the tedious work of Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo. Ikeda had noticed a certain recognizable yet undistinguishable element of taste in particular foods including asparagus, tomatoes, and kelp, the latter of which he studied in great detail. What he found was that these foods had a high concentration of the amino acid glutamate. Ikeda went on to replicate the flavor in the substance we commonly refer to as MSG, or monosodium glutamate, which was marketed as the magical product that could enhance the flavor of any dish.
Not all foods need to be enhanced though, as a lot of our dietary staples include naturally occurring levels of umami. Have you ever wondered why so many people go bonkers for bacon? It has to do with the fact that cured pork products top the umami charts. Mushrooms — especially shiitake — exhibit a high level of the savory taste, and when combined with sweet potatoes make for an umami explosion. Potatoes, in general, are a very umami-rich food, as are carrots. Matured beef (think beef jerky) contains a significant amount of glutamate. And when people started pairing plain old ground beef with cheese and ketchup, à la the cheeseburger, a match made in umami heaven was unknowingly born.
Umami for the Masses
Adam Fleischman wanted to capitalize on the inherent umami quality found in modern burgers when he opened Umami Burger in Los Angeles in 2009. He was striving to create what he deemed the “ultimate umami bomb” in a layered burger that also had an ideal b-to-b (bun-to-burger) ratio. The original recipe includes a 6-ounce patty made from ground local steaks cooked and seasoned with “Umami Dust,” oven-roasted tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, “Umami Ketchup,” and a Parmesan crisp, all sandwiched between a Portuguese-style roll. The burger and larger concept quickly caught on with the now-franchise restaurant chain expanding to more than 20 locations throughout California, and newly opened outposts in Las Vegas, Miami, and New York City.
Umami and the Savory Cocktail Trend
If you would prefer to drink your umami instead, cocktail aficionados are whipping up a new wave of savory drinks that play to the trend. For the adventurous at heart, consider a martini made with garlic-infused vodka, vermouth, and a few dashes of truffle oil; go all-in and garnish with an anchovy if so desired. On the tamer side of things, try a gin-based martini muddled with tomatoes, basil leaves, peppercorns, and bitters, served in a salt-rimmed glass. When dessert rolls around, opt for a sweet potato cocktail enhanced with pumpkin, sherry, cinnamon, vanilla, and salty pecans. In a time when farm-to-table ingredients are all the rage, the pleasantly savory possibilities are endless. Cheers to umami and boundless “tasty” experiences for us all!