What Is Umami and What Does It Taste Like?

At an early age, we’re taught that humans can detect four tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. As it turns out, that’s not entirely accurate. (Remember that tongue map thing? That was a total lie too).

Humans can actually detect five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.

What Is Umami?

Antonis Achilleos, Food Styling: Margaret Dickey, Prop Styling: Missie Crawford

Get the recipe: Umami Grilled Leg of Lamb

We likely encounter umami every single day, but it’s kind of a still a mystery to most of us.

Explaining “umami” to someone who hasn’t knowingly tasted it is almost like trying to describe the color green to someone who’s been blind since birth. Still, we’re going to take a crack at it:

Umami is the most recently identified and accepted of the basic tastes. It’s found in a variety of foods (like asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat), but all umami foods have one thing in common: They contain amino acids called glutamates, which are commonly added to some foods in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Umami’s history is as old as food itself. However, it wasn’t until recently that someone singled it out.

French chef Auguste Escoffier was known for creating groundbreaking dishes in the 19th century that were deep and rich, but could not be described as salty, sweet, sour, or bitter. Many people credit him with “creating” umami with his invention of veal stock. However, he did not try to classify the taste.

The name “umami” didn’t come around until 1908, when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda pinpointed the presence of glutamic acid in foods with the specific characteristics he was trying to identify. He named the taste “umami” which is Japanese for “good flavor.”

What Does Umami Taste Like?

Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez

Get the recipe: Umami Broth with Buckwheat and Vegetables

Umami describes food that are savory, earthy, and meaty. You can taste it in foods like meat broths, some cheeses, miso, seaweed, and mushrooms.

Umami’s taste is relatively mild, but it does have an aftertaste. For some people, it can cause salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue.

Umami Foods

Jennifer Causey

Get the recipe: Mostly Mushroom Pasta

Some umami-rich foods are: miso, Parmesan cheese, kimchi, Vegemite, Roquefort cheese, dry-cured ham, shitake mushrooms, anchovies, tomatoes, oysters, scallops, soy sauce, clams, corn, and potatoes.