The Fifth Taste

September 8, 2009

IMG_0691Over the weekend I went to a restaurant in westchester called ümami café, named after the fifth taste sensation. The fifth taste? Yup, that’s right. Turns out we have five taste sensations, not just the four you’re familiar with: sweet, sour, bitter, salty.

Umami is a fifth taste that was discovered by the Japanese over a century ago, but did not really come into the spotlight until the ’80s. What does umami mean? The word is derived from the Japanese adjective umai, which is defined as “delicious” or “tasty.” Other words to describe umami are savory and meaty.  The umami taste is due to the taste receptor for glutamates, salts of the amino acid (protein building blocks) glutamic acid that is commonly found in meat, cheese, and broth. The most common glutamate is MSG (monosodium glutamate), used to enhance the flavor of food.

I first learned about umami in graduate school, and I remember the primary example of umami was a portobello mushroom — it has a meaty, savory taste that is not represented in the other taste categories. It’s hard to identify the umami taste, but when you can’t identify the taste of your food as one of the four you’re familiar with, remember umami — that may be what you’re tasting.

For more information on umami, check out the Umami Information Center.

Have you tasted umami lately?

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