What is umami? Put simply, umami is savouriness. The word translates to 'savoury deliciousness' in Japanese, and refers to that rich, meaty intensity that coats your mouth and ignites your taste buds when you slurp on ramen, or take that first bite of nori-wrapped sushi.
Dr Alison Jones, a researcher in food science at the University of New South Wales, considers umami to be our unofficial fifth taste. "For many of us, there are four basic taste categories that we can easily identify in the foods we eat: saltiness, sourness, bitterness and sweetness," she says. "However, other taste categories have been proposed and there is ongoing research into what terms should be included as basic tastes. One such widely recognised term is umami."
Around the world, humans have been savouring umami flavours for thousands of years, says Dr Jones. However, the word itself was originally coined in the early 20th-century by Japanese chemist Professor Kikunae Ikeda. Ikeda wanted to know the science behind the distinct flavour of dashi, so decided to study the molecular composition of one of its key ingredients, kombu. He discovered that a substance known as glutamic acid was responsible for the umami taste we've become familiar with today.
So how can you achieve umami flavours in your cooking? Here's a guide to umami-rich Japanese ingredients and how to use them.
Also known as katsuobushi, these salty fish flakes are produced by simmering, smoking, drying and fermenting skipjack tuna. They bring a smoky intensity to sauces, soups and even onigiri. When used as a garnish for okonomiyaki, the flakes dance and move with the hot steam rising off the pancake.
Tamari is soy sauce's Japanese cousin – it's made with fermented soy beans, but with little to no wheat. It's slightly malty with a darker, more rounded flavour than soy sauce. Toasted nuts will benefit from a trickle of this. It's also a solid dipping and seasoning sauce.
Dried shiitake mushrooms
Fresh shiitake mushrooms give earthy richness to dishes, but dried are even better. The drying process breaks down certain proteins in the mushrooms and ultimately generates a more concentrated umami flavour. Use the rehydration liquid as the base for stocks, braises and sauces. Remember to keep sealed and store in a cool, dry cupboard.
Red, white or yellow, miso is an easy way of packing more umami into your cooking. The ancient Japanese art form of miso-making sees soybeans fermented with salt and koji for anywhere between several weeks to seven years. This results in a thick paste with a salty, concentrated flavour. Add to braises, marinades and salad dressings, or use in desserts to create a pleasing salty counterpoint.