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Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste

Ole G. Mouritsen
Klavs Styrbæk
Photography, layout, and design Jonas Drotner Mouritsen
Translation and adaptation to English Mariela Johansen
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    In the West, we have identified only four basic tastes -- sour, sweet, salty, and bitter -- that, through skillful combination and technique, create delicious foods. Yet in many parts of East Asia over the past century, an additional flavor has entered the culinary lexicon: umami, a fifth taste impression that is savory, complex, and wholly distinct.

    Combining culinary history with recent research into the chemistry, preparation, nutrition, and culture of food, Mouritsen and Styrbæk encapsulate what we know to date about the concept of umami, from ancient times to today. Umami can be found in soup stocks, meat dishes, air-dried ham, shellfish, aged cheeses, mushrooms, and ripe tomatoes, and it can enhance other taste substances to produce a transformative gustatory experience. Researchers have also discovered which substances in foodstuffs bring out umami, a breakthrough that allows any casual cook to prepare delicious and more nutritious meals with less fat, salt, and sugar. The implications of harnessing umami are both sensuous and social, enabling us to become more intimate with the subtleties of human taste while making better food choices for ourselves and our families.

    This volume, the product of an ongoing collaboration between a chef and a scientist, won the Danish national Mad+Medier-Prisen (Food and Media Award) in the category of academic food communication.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53758-2
    Subjects: Technology, Business, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Ole G. Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbæk
  4. Prologue: How it all began
    (pp. xiii-xv)

    Some readers might be curious to know a little about what inspired us to undertake this joint venture to unlock the secrets of umami and to put our findings together in a book. Like most Danes, we were very familiar with the four basic tastes, enshrined in Western literature for many centuries: sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. But the idea of a ‘fifth taste,’ one that has been known in the East for millennia, had not gained much traction in the circles we frequented, even though the popularity of Asian food had grown by leaps and bounds in the past...

  5. What exactly is taste, and why is it important?
    (pp. 1-13)

    Well into the modern age, taste was regarded as something subjective over which housewives and chefs held sway. It was not until about the 1920s that it became the object of rigorous scientific studies. So it should come as no surprise that it is only within the past few decades that we have started to gain a better understanding of its actual physiological basis. This allows us to explain, in detail, how taste is detected in the mouth by certain receptors and converted into nerve impulses that are then forwarded to specific centers in the brain. The neural cells in...

  6. The first four: Sour, sweet, salty, and bitter
    (pp. 15-21)

    The perception of taste has its physiological origin in the taste receptor cells. These are found in the taste buds, which are embedded in tiny protrusions (papillae) located primarily on the top of the tongue but also distributed over the soft palate, pharynx, epiglottis, and the entrance to the esophagus. There are approximately 9,000 taste buds on the human tongue, clustered together in groups of 50 or so. Each taste bud is made up of 50–150 taste receptor cells. Like other cells, they are encapsulated in a cell membrane, and it is this membrane that holds the secret of...

  7. The fifth taste: What is umami?
    (pp. 23-39)

    Even though the wordumaihad been used in Japan for hundreds of years to signify the concept of something delicious, people only became truly conscious of it thanks to the efforts of a single individual—Japanese professor and chemist Kikunae Ikeda (1864–1936), who set himself the challenge of identifying the substance in Japanese soups that was responsible for their fantastically good taste. He found the answer in 1908.

    Japanese soups are based on a stock calleddashi, which is a very simple, clear broth. It is made by extracting the taste substances from a particular species of brown...

  8. 1 + 1 = 8: Gustatory synergy
    (pp. 41-63)

    What is very unusual about umami is that the intensity of the taste it imparts is not solely dependent on how much glutamate is present. To a much greater extent, it is affected by synergistic interactions with other substances that increase its gustatory intensity. Most often this involves a 5’-ribonucleotide, especially inosinate and guanylate. Somewhat imprecisely and proverbially, it has been said that the taste imparted by equal amounts of glutamate and a nucleotide is eight times stronger than that produced by glutamate alone. As we will see, however, the synergistic effect can be much stronger.

    In the explanation that...

  9. Umami from the oceans: Seaweeds, fish, and shellfish
    (pp. 65-103)

    It is likely that many cuisines in all parts of the world originally depended on fermented fish and shellfish, cooked and cured meat, and seaweeds to add umami to a variety of dishes. In both Asia and Europe, preserved fish, together with the condiments made from them, have been used for at least two and a half millennia, and probably since long before then, as a simple, nutritious way to improve the taste of other foods. One might say that the history of using ingredients to prepare food that is rich in umami runs parallel to and reflects the overall...

  10. Umami from the land: Fungi and plants
    (pp. 105-135)

    As we turn our attention from the sources of umami that are found in the oceans to those that grow on land, we are struck by some important differences. While a great many marine organisms are excellent sources, the number of fungi and plants that would be described as having significant potential to contribute umami is more limited. On the other hand, some are able to supply both basal umami by way of free glutamate and synergistic umami from nucleotides, especially guanylate. And it is among the fungi and plants that we also find a few of the true umami...

  11. Umami from land animals: Meat, eggs, and dairy products
    (pp. 137-153)

    In general, there are more free amino acids in the foodstuffs that are made from the organisms that grow in the earth than there are in those derived from the animals that live on it. On the other hand, animal-based foods are good sources of inosinate, which interacts synergistically to signal the presence of proteins. The umami content of meat and dairy products can be strengthened dramatically by preparing them in certain ways or by fermentation and curing. In particular, both simmering meat and bones over long periods of time and fermenting milk result in an abundance of umami.


  12. Umami: The secret behind the humble soup stock
    (pp. 155-165)

    By far the majority of foodstuffs, when in their raw form, have little umami. Drawing out the fifth taste from them, therefore, becomes a question of breaking down their constituent parts, especially converting proteins into small peptides and free amino acids. Nucleic acids have little direct impact on nutrition, but they unquestionably have influence when it comes to taste and to interacting with glutamate to impart synergistic umami. This is especially true with the humble soup stock, a basic tool in virtually all cuisines. It seems that, since earliest times, cooks in all parts of the world have intuitively found...

  13. Making the most of umami
    (pp. 167-205)

    The time has now come to take a little tour of the various ways in which we can tease out umami in our own kitchens. To do so, we have included a number of recipes for both traditional and modern dishes that are made from selected raw ingredients treated in such a way as to take advantage of every last bit of umami in them. First, though, we will make a quick detour to discover some easy tricks for enhancing the taste of foodstuffs that may not be very savory on their own by adding certain readily available products to...

  14. Umami and wellness
    (pp. 207-212)

    Food with umami can often be prepared with significantly less salt, sugar, and fat without sacrificing the delicious taste of the resulting dish. Salt, in particular, is frequently applied too liberally in order to compensate for ingredients that are insipid or unpalatable. In many cases, its use can be reduced by as much as a half by incorporating foodstuffs with umami into the recipe. The fifth taste spurs the appetite, an attribute that can be exploited to advantage in caring for the sick and the elderly, who may have lost interest in eating. At the same time, however, umami promotes...

  15. Epilogue: Umami has come to stay
    (pp. 213-215)

    As we have seen throughout this book, umami is a relatively new label for a taste that, for possibly the past 1.9 million years, has been an integral aspect of the food of modern humankind and its ancestors. It is an attribute of nutritious food and in this way has steered our preference for food with that particular taste. The taste is intensified when we work with the raw ingredients in certain ways, which have been refined in the course of millennia and which are the very heart of our food cultures, culinary skills, and gastronomy. Virtually all the cuisines...

  16. Technical and scientific details
    (pp. 217-232)

    With the discovery in 2000 of the first umami receptor,taste-mGluR4, scientists were finally in a position to investigate the molecular basis of umami, which Professor Ikeda, as early as 1908, had already determined could be elicited by glutamate.

    The peculiar name of the receptor,taste-mGluR4, tells us that it is related to the already known mGluR4 in the brain, which is sensitive to glutamate when it acts as a neurotransmitter. The difference betweentaste-mGluR4 and mGluR4 is that the former is a truncated version of the latter; the part of the taste receptor that projects from the taste cell...

  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-236)
  18. Illustration credits
    (pp. 237-238)
  19. Glossary
    (pp. 239-254)
  20. Index
    (pp. 255-263)
    (pp. 264-264)