Umami Tsunami : Exploring the Fifth Flavor in Seattle

By L.M. ArcherFoodable Contributor


You know the five fundamental flavors, don’t you? Sweet, salty, sour, bitter...and umami.  The Japanese term umami, loosely translated, means ‘satisfying, savory taste.’ But asking a Japanese person to define ‘umami’ is like asking a French person to define ‘terroir’ - both terms denote far more nuances than any translation allows.  And though a Japanese word, the concept of umami dates back at least as far as the Roman Empire, to a time when fermented fish paste called garum proved the favored condiment.

Tokyo professor Dr. Kikunae Ikeda officially ‘discovered’ umami in 1908, convinced of ‘another taste’ beyond salty, sweet, sour and bitter in his Japanese staple ‘kombu dashi’ - a fish and dried kelp broth.  That other flavor turned out to be glutamate, an amino acid which appears naturally in meats, fish, and dairy products. Japanese scholars also later concluded that inosinic acid and guanosine monophosphate (GMP) form additional components of umami. 

Unfortunately, umami languished in the shadows long after its discovery, considered by many a concocted conglomeration of the other four tastes. Only in 2000 did umami finally gain legitimacy as the fifth fundamental flavor, after scientists discovered the presence of glutamate receptors on the tongue.

Common foods brimming with glutamate, inosinic acid and GMP include cured meats, fish, aged cheeses, toasted nuts like almonds and walnuts, seeds like sesame and caraway, shellfish, pork, fermented products like miso, mushrooms like shiitake, and vegetables like tomatoes, spinach, and celery. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, derives from the sodium salt of glutamate.

Combine eatables rich in these ingredients, and you unleash an umami tsunami - a tidal wave of tastiness. Three Emerald City eateries hanging ten on the fifth flavor with flair include:

Boom Noodle | University Village

At Boom Noodle, it’s all about the broth. For traditionalists, Boom Noodle’s Corporate Chef Jevic Acain ladles out his most popular menu item: Tokyo Ramen, a steamy stockpot of savory pork and chicken broth simmered for over four hours, then garnished with soy reduction, shiitake mushrooms, blanched bamboo, pickled ginger, corn, green onion, alkaline noodles, boiled egg, and braised pork.

Chef Jevic considers umami the cornerstone of Boom Noodle’s success, describing the taste this way: ‘If you eat something, and your mouth starts salivating, the back of your mouth as well as the roof of your mouth, that’s umami!”

Tanakasan | Downtown Seattle

Tanakasan Sweetbreads  | Facebook

Tanakasan Sweetbreads | Facebook

For the unconventional, Chef Eric Tanaka of Tom Douglas dynasty’s Pan-Asian eatery Tanakasan rides the pipe with umami-loaded fare like Home Fries and Osaka Pancakes garnished with bonita flakes, or katsuobushi - shaved pieces of dried, fermented, smoked skipjack tuna. Like the unique toast levels of oak wine barrels, bonita flake smoke gradations vary, each imparting its own particular ‘smokey’ profile.

Tanaka has been known to move from behind the stove to the front of a classroom for the sake of umami. In 2014, Tanaka presented ‘Unleash the Umami’ at Douglas’s Hot Stove Society culinary school, a casual cook-and-drink affair set at Hotel Andra. The ‘teachable menu’  included how to whip up Traditional Japanese Dashi broth made from two primary ingredients, katsuobushi and kombu (dried kelp), as well as unorthodox Dashi Matzo Ball Soup, Miso Tomato Sauce, and some Hands-on Umami Bomb Making. No surprise the class sold out.

Stoneburner | Ballard

Umami isn’t just endemic to Asian cuisine. For a Mediterranean-inspired homage to the fifth flavor, chef Jason Stoneburner and crew of Ballard’s eponymous hip hotspot Stoneburner dish up bodacious, by-request White Anchovy Pizza, a lip-smacking combination of ‘umami synergy’ - yeasty pizza crust, tangy tomato paste, mutable mushrooms, nutty Parmesan cheese, and briny anchovies. Yum. Which may describe umami best of all.