It's the fifth taste and here's everything you need to know about it

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Image: So what exactly *is* umami?

Heather Paul / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr: warriorwoman531

Mmmmmmmnnnnnami

Forget everything you ever knew about taste: we’re about to reveal the real reason why once you’ve popped you literally cannot stop.

 

Somewhere at the back of your mind you might remember seeing an illustrated map of the tongue, one that pointed out zones where you can taste various flavours. If you do, you may recall there was a salty bit of your tongue. You’ll never guess what … that's been wrong this WHOLE TIME.

 

While we do have the ability to taste different flavours, it has nothing to do with areas of the tongue. Don’t believe us? Place a ready-salted crisp on the end of your tongue. Still tastes salty, huh?

 

It’s now widely acknowledged by science that we can taste the following: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and of course the mysterious umami. Ooooomaaaami.

 

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prinler

TheDeliciousLife / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr: thedelicious

Just. One. More. Pringle.

 

So what’s umani then?

 

The mysterious yet distinct flavour of umani is notoriously hard to describe, but if you’ve tasted it you’ll know. It can be characterised as a mouth-watering, tongue-coating feeling with a long-lasting, almost tactile sensation.

 

When Auguste Escoffier filled his restaurants with hungry customers in the 1800s, he didn’t realise that what they were really loving was that umami goodness. It wasn’t until 1908 that a scientist in Tokyo named Kikunae Ikeda noticed that dashi – a sort of stock – gave him an extra yum factor that couldn’t be placed in other foods. He started investigating what made it all so delish and worked out that the presence of an amino acid called glutamate was what was really getting his tastebuds jiving.

 

Ikeda then set his mind to turning his discoveries into cold hard cash, developing the mass-produced compound we now know as MSG. That’s the stuff oft sprinkled into ever-so-moreish chicken chow mein and other takeaway favourites. And, yes, it's the thing that makes Pringles unputdownable.

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parmesan

THOR / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr: geishaboy500

 

Why do we love the stuff so much?

 

It's thought that there are sound biological reasons we're so affected by flavours: we use them to work out what might kill us and what will nourish us. It’s thought that different tastes can be categorised like this:

 

  • Sweet: source of energy
  • Sour: unripe fruit
  • Bitter: poison, medicines
  • Salty: electrolytes / minerals
  • Umami: amino acids and peptides

 

We naturally crave food high in amino acids, such as proteins, and it's also thought that the umami flavour in cured meats could be to do with their being safe to eat. Interestingly, it looks like we’re sold on the taste of amino acids before we can even speak, as high levels of those tasty glutamates can also be found in breast milk.

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tomatoes

liz west / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr: calliope

 

Which foods are umami-ish?

 

Ever wondered why you can’t stop slicing edges off that ever-decreasing block of parmesan? Why you’ve been known to stuff yourself senseless with Frazzles and why, given the option, you would cover every meal in ketchup? Well, while parmesan is thought to be the ultimate in umami there's a whole bunch of foods on this taste spectrum that we’re hooked on.

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buerger

Marshall Astor / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr: lifeontheedge

Some foods have a naturally occurring dash of umami goodness: mushrooms and vegetables such as asparagus, cabbage, tomatoes and spinach, for example. Other foods acquire those lip-smacking amino acids in the stewing, fermenting or curing process, which is one of the reasons pulled pork is so damn good. Worcester sauce and ketchup are rich in mmmmamis and Marmite is used an an "umami bomb" in cooking. 

 

Combine these flavours with other umami players like cheese and you’ve got yourself one hell of a mouthful. All this goes some way to explaining why an Emmenthal-laden cheeseburger with ketchup can be genuinely life-altering or why peas and ham are the holiest of matrimonies.

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peas

Photo: Brett Stevens