Umami Like!

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Last weekend I was in Chicago and came across a restaurant called Umami Burger. This jogged my memory back to my college days when I was learning about food and nutrition. I always liked the word umami because it conjured feelings of something savory and extra yummy.

A Little on Umami

We all know about the 4 tastes that are detected by receptors on the tongue– salty, sweet, bitter and sour...but did you know there is a fifth 5th taste? Umami was coined more recently in 1908 by a scientist at Tokyo Imperial University named Dr. Kikunae Ikeda. Translated it means "strong savory taste".

It actually wasn't until the 1980s that umami was proven to be independent of the other four tastes. A specific receptor on the tongue was found that identifies glutamate- an amino acid and contributor to the umami taste. Japanese cuisine is known for savory flavors and they believe that "umami is part of the Japanese DNA" (Expert Chef, Takashi Tamura).

The composition of umami– read more about how amino acids play a role in taste and contribute to flavor combinations.

Foods Containing High Levels of Glutamate (mg/100g):

(These foods will have satisfying effects)

  • Kombu (matured kelp)- 3190
  • Parmesan cheese– 1200-1600
  • Nori (sea vegetable)– 1378
  • Soy sauce– 780
  • Green tea– 668
  • Sardine- 280
  • Tomatoes– 246
  • Dried shiitake mushrooms– 150
  • Potatoes– 102
  • Egg yolk– 46
  • Carrots– 33

Reducing Sodium with MSG

Glutamate (glutamic acid) + sodium = monosodium glutamate. AKA MSG! Don't you just love when things come full circle? The intent of this flavor-enhancer was to reduce the need for sodium in peoples diets. However, since its inception, there have been reports of negative health effects when consumed by individuals with certain health conditions. Consume with caution!

DIY Vegetarian Umami Sauce (Printable Picture Recipe)

Make your own 5-star sauce. It will give any meat or vegetable dish a savory flavor without the need for salt. It is complex and full of depth which will leave your guests wanting more. A healthy alternative to MSG.

  1. Select about 3 pounds of vegetables. For this recipe I will use carrots, eggplant, cauliflower, beets, onion, garlic and broccoli.
  2. Shred the vegetables into a high-sided baking pan. Top with 3 sheets of dried wakame (sea vegetable) and 2 tbs of tomato paste; mix with your hands.
  3. Bake at 300°F for ~45 minutes or until slightly browned and a bit crispy.
  4. Fill pan with water to just cover the cooked vegetables. Return to oven and bake for an additional 30 minutes.
  5. Remove from oven and strain liquid into a sauce pan.
  6. To thicken the sauce, simmer over low-heat until reduced by half. Mix 2 tbs corn starch + 2 tbs cold water; add to simmering sauce to thicken more. This recipe will yield ~250 ml of sauce.
  7. Use warm or store for later– use within 4 days for best quality.

Umami sauce tastes great on sautéed green beans, roasted vegetables, boiled or mashed potatoes, any kind of protein, and cooked noodles. The options are endless.



Umami Information Center

Institute of Medicine (2010): Taste and Flavor Roles of Sodium in Foods: A Unique Challenge to Reducing Sodium Intake. In: Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States, edited by Henney J.E. et al, pp.65 , The National Academy Press Washington, DC