The word is now fashionable in restaurants across the world, but what is this fifth taste sensation called umami?

Trying to describe umami is a challenge in the same way that describing sweet is next to impossible. We know what a sweet taste is because we have experienced it and it is fully on the tongue. Umami is not salty, sweet, sour, or bitter; nor is it a combination of any of these.

Person holding a bowl of frothy matcha tea, with a deep umami sensory experience

Umami is a taste and a sensation that happens on the tongue with anything containing natural — not artificial — glutamic acid or glutamates. You’ve no doubt heard of MSG or monosodium glutamate, commonly found in Chinese food and much of Asian foods. It often gets a bad rap for making you feel bad, likely due to the increased levels of sodium used in combination with it. However, the monosodium glutamate compound is the basis for umami. Incidentally, the word umami is formed by the Japanese word delicious (umai) and taste (mi).

Umami was first noted around 1908 thanks to Japanese scientist and foodie Professor Kikunae Ikeda, who discovered that a specific type of seaweed in his soup called kombu (kelp) was responsible for the taste he classified as “Ajinomoto” — or a thing of taste or essence of flavor — permeating much of Japanese cuisine. This discovery captivated him so much that he spend the next year studying the composition of kombu to understand this ajinomoto quality. 

He discovered that natural glutamates develop when foods are fermented, aged, cooked, or processed (steamed in the case of matcha and Japanese green tea). Other foods containing umami include but are not limited to: Cheeses, aged meats, certain mushrooms, miso, dashi, truffles and the list goes on.

Professor Ikeda went on to discover how this flavor could be mass-produced and developed a process which he patented. He called his company Ajinomoto and it is the world’s leading producer of MSG, initially extracted from wheat and defatted soybeans but today produced from fermented cornstarch, sugar cane, or beet.

It wasn’t until 1985 at the Umami International Symposium in Hawaii that umami received a classification as an official taste. This was given due to the different receptors on the tongue which require it to be felt and tasted, whereas the four other tastes (sour, bitter, sweet, and salty) arise out of a combination of taste receptors. 

Food manufacturers are now using umami (MSG) to improve the deliciousness of low sodium products. Chefs are also getting into the act by creating recipes using multiple umami ingredients combined to boost the flavor. In fact, umami is becoming a household term thanks to chains like Umami Burger which took the West Coast by storm opening in LA in 2007 and having expanded into Japan in 2020, the birthplace of umami.

Winding back to matcha and Japanese green tea – when a review or description states that a predominate flavor is umami, that translates to serious deliciousness!

A perfect umami sip of tea will be rounded and balanced and have an inviting mouthfeel, which is exactly what umami is famous for…deepening the taste of a dish or bowl of matcha or cup of green tea. 

If you want to taste a real umami-bomb, check out Chiki Tea’s SILK matcha in particular. This is the pinnacle of umami perfection (in my opinion).

Image is copyright to author’s friend and fellow tea lover Lera Zujeva and used with permission