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What is umami exactly and how does it tie into sushi and sashimi making?

I know umami is the fifth flavor of japanese gastronomy. I am wondering what it exactly is, how I can recognize it and how it contributes to the balance of flavors for sushi and sashimi. Is it really a fifth flavor (if so what is producing it) or is it something achieved by the combination of the other 4 basic flavors? Finally, how can I train my western tongue to recognize and appreciate it?

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3 Responses to “What is umami exactly and how does it tie into sushi and sashimi making?”

  1. Spring! said :

    Umami (IPA: [uː mɑː mi]), popularly referred-to as savoriness,[1][2][3][4][5] is one of the five basic tastes together with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Umami is a loanword from the Japanese umami (うま味?) meaning “good taste”, “deliciousness”.[6] This particular writing was chosen by professor Ikeda who described it for the first time from umai (うまい) “delicious” and mi (味) “taste”, to differentiate it from the word with the same sound but written as 旨味 that means good taste, not savory or the fifth basic taste.[citation needed] Umami represents the taste imparted by the amino acid L-glutamate and 5’-ribonucleotides such as guanosine monophosphate (GMP) and inosine monophosphate (IMP).[7] It describes a pleasant “brothy” or “meaty” taste with a long lasting, mouthwatering and coating sensation over the tongue. This is due to the detection of the carboxylate anion of glutamic acid in specialized receptor cells present on the human and animal tongue.[8][9] Its fundamental effect is the ability to balance and round the total flavor of a dish. Umami clearly enhances the palatability of soups and a wide variety of foods that are not sweet. Fruits, fruit juices and some dairy products do not match well with umami taste (for review Beuchamp, 2009).[10] Salts of glutamic acid, known as glutamates, easily ionize to give the same taste and they are used as flavor enhancers. While the umami taste is due to glutamates, (GMP) and (IMP) greatly enhance its perceived intensity.[9][11]

  2. punchie said :

    Great question…but try not to overthink it. Umami is represented by the essence of balanced flavors and good taste (“good taste” as in using quality ingredients, the freshest fish possible, lean high quality beef, farm fresh vegetables, portion control (not eating too much of one thing without the other), using traditional ingredients in proportion to “trendy” ingredients. I think that your western palate can and does appreciate umami just by recognizing it’s existence and those who strive to achieve it in their cuisine. I always feel that the minute you recognize something to be “over the top” in flavor, taste, balance, texture & smell …something short of perfection then you have encountered “umami”.

  3. TLK said :

    I think umami, which literally means taste in Japanese, stands for glutamic acid and other amino acid in cooking. Typically, Japanese extract umami from kelp/konbu as a stock.

    As for sushi and sashimi, since there is no stock involved, they probably literally refer to taste and flavor when they talk about umami of sushi or sashimi.

    glutamic acid and other amino acid collectively known as umami can be found in lots of ingredients, like tomatoes, beef, shimeji mushrooms, etc. Umami, in my opinion, should be treated in relation with other flavors. Balance of flavors is crucial as is always the case with cooking.

    I’m sure you already know what umami is. You probably just haven’t recognized it as a separate flavor. I mean, when we talk about wine, we talk about mineral. Some people say, “What is mineral?” But of course, they are already tasting it. They just do not consciously separate it from other flavors.

    The fastest way to learn what umami is in its purest form is to lick a pinch of ajinomoto. That is pure glutamic acid. By the way, ajinomoto itself should not be used in any serious cooking. It’s too strong and pure, so it absolutely offends other flavors. It is also bad for one’s palate in my opinion, because one gets used to it too much. Just like sugar.


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