What is ‘Umami’ and where can I eat it?

In the food world, the word ‘umami’ gets tossed around quite a lot when it comes to describing flavour, but it bodes the question – what on earth does it mean?

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Stolen from the Japanese lexicon, the word ‘Umami’(うま味), can be translated directly as ‘a pleasant savoury taste’. But to me, even that is a vague term that I don’t really understand, so I’ve done a little research.

It turns out that umami has a basis in science. The word or taste specifically refers to the presence of chemicals called glutamates and nucleotides.  These are naturally present in the flavour of meat, meat broths, mushrooms and fermented fish among other foods.

But it is more than just savoury flavour. We learn when we are little about our 4 taste buds on our tongue – sweet, sour, bitter, salty – well Umami is the 5th. According to science, it is a whole other thing, and it takes up the majority of your tongue.

Umami is a pleasant ‘brothy’ flavour which is meaty at its very core with a long-lasting coating sensation that lingers on the tongue and makes your mouth water.

You will find umami flavour most commonly in Asian and Japanese food. Look to Cottonopolis if you want to see what I mean as their menu is full of equally unfamiliar words like Dashi and Kombu which are known as the main culprits of hiding that elusive Umami flavour.

Dashi is a clear seaweed (kombu) based stock with mushrooms, soy, fish, and Benito flakes which is as about as umami as it gets. Try it on their Kombu roasted salmon or even better on the tomato dashi which comes with their outrageously delicious 50oz fillet of wagyu beef. Taste it, savour it – that is what Umami tastes like.

With all that in mind, it’s important to note that umami isn’t just unique to Japanese cuisine. The flavour is naturally occurring in lots of types of fish such as tuna, mackerel and prawns which means that Umezushi is a great place to get involved to taste umami in its purest form (which is raw…obviously). Pair this with a bit of soy sauce and your taste buds will be tingling on that sweet umami spot for sure.

A more unusual hiding spot for umami, however, is in things like cheese and tomatoes – which is why they taste so good when paired together. However, the better the quality of both these products the better the presence of the flavour.

For example, a cheese and tomato pasta dish from Frankie & Benny’s isn’t going to have the same effect as a D.O.P tomato topped sourdough pizza from with Pecorino Ramano from Honest Crust.  Umami is all in the quality of fine ingredients.

What is even more interesting about umami is the fact that it is paired best with other umami flavours, which when I think about it – makes complete sense. Pork, for example, is full of the stuff and it tastes even better when you smother it in the gravy juices which are packed with, yep, you guessed it – more umami.

This means that places that make real gravy made from the juices and bones of the meat it is paired with (Hawksmoor and The Bay Horse Tavern– I’m looking at you) are palaces for that authentic Umami experience.

Umami has a basis of science, and that science tells us why things taste good and particularly why two things taste so good together. I’m talking about field mushroom with your steak, feta cheese and spinach, truffles with Parmesan or why that weird fish and cheese combo in the smoked haddock rarebit from the Koffee Pot is so mouth-wateringly good. Umami is the science of things tasting delicious. 

So next time you sit down and eat something and think ‘fuck that’s tasty’ ask yourself if it is tickling your umami taste buds. Savour it, enjoy the mouth-watering experience and unlock the 5th taste bud you never knew you had.

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