Skip to content

Umami: the new way to smell flavors without paying through the nose

at_umami1(2).JPG

At Astor Center in New York City, students learn to recognize the umami flavor through a series of food samples. (Amy Tennery)

at_umami2.JPG

At Astor Center in New York City, students learn to recognize the umami flavor through a series of food samples. (Amy Tennery)

at_umami3.JPG

At Astor Center in New York City, students learn to recognize the umami flavor through a series of food samples. (Amy Tennery)

at_umami4.JPG

At Astor Center in New York City, students learn to recognize the umami flavor through a series of food samples. (Amy Tennery)

at_umami5.JPG

At Astor Center in New York City, students learn to recognize the umami flavor through a series of food samples. (Amy Tennery)

at_umami6.JPG

At Astor Center in New York City, students learn to recognize the umami flavor through a series of food samples. (Amy Tennery)

Chef Margaret Happel Perry spooned a thick, red puree into a student’s mouth at a recent tasting, but the aspiring connoseur couldn’t decipher the flavor.

The blindfold across her face and the cotton stuffed up her nose didn’t help.

Like many who are learning to recognize umami for the first time, the taste was somewhat foreign. Known as the “fifth child” of flavors (after sweet, sour, salty and bitter), umami is the savory taste found in foods like Vegemite, demi-glace and, yes, roasted tomatoes.

Umami is undeniably trendy among connoisseurs, but some familiar with its broader uses say it could serve practical purposes for the non-gourmet.

Chefs like Perry, who works at New York City’s Astor Center, believe that foods rich in umami flavors provide a decadent experience in tight economic times.

“Where there (is) desperation, there is interest in nutrition,” said Perry. “It’s poverty cooking. When people don’t have as much, this is just as satisfying.”

In Milwaukee, San Francisco and Seattle, umami restaurants recently opened to much acclaim.

The Umami Information Center recently hosted a successful symposium on the elusive flavor in Silicon Valley, and Umami Moto Milwaukee was the first Asian restaurant to receive four stars by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“Certainly, that fullness of flavor was evident from the beginning,” wrote food critic Carol Deptolla in her review. “Ever sit back and give up a contented sigh after finishing a plate of deeply satisfying food? I did that a lot.”

Despite its success in gourmand circles the concept is new to many.

Commonly associated with different Asian cuisines, the umami flavor is the result of the presence of glutamic acid—also known as the infamous MSG. Although MSG has been reviled in nutritional circles in the past, proponents of the ingredient argue that MSG is a naturally occurring substance, the result of various protein compounds found in certain foods.

“There is no reason to have a negative reaction to MSG,” Perry said. “It’s been tested and tested and tested. It’s found in breast milk—it’s the first thing your baby has!”

Nancy Degner, executive director for the Iowa Beef Industry Council, said that embracing umami flavors helps people learn cooking skills that will save them money.

“Many people today didn’t grow up in homes that cooked,” said Degner, referring to the past trend of microwave friendly food. “Looking at umami, to me, helps people understand what makes food taste good.

“If you look at some of the classic beef dishes that have lasted a really long time, they have the combination of flavors that makes the umami pop.”

Researchers at the University of Miami first identified the umami taste receptors on the human tongue in 1997. Since then, chefs and nutritionists have identified savory foods like mushrooms and roasted beef as umami-friendly.

Perry and her co-instructor, chef educator Renee Marton, employ sensory deprivation techniques—including blindfolds and nose plugs—to help students learn the umami taste.

The instructors said identifying the umami flavor in food is a new experience, so students must slowly learn to recognize the taste without the assistance of their other senses.

“Eliminating the sense of sight means the ‘cues’ that give a preconceived idea as to what taste will be are not there,” said Perry. “My teaching example is a glass of beef bouillon over ice with lemon and mint,” that gives the expectation of iced tea. “There is disgust and often expectoration when the tasters discover it is not so.”

One student at the Astor Center learned about umami only when her husband gave her tickets to the class for Christmas.

“I told my mom I got an ‘umami class’ and my mother—who desperately wants to be a grandmother—thought I said a ‘new mommy class,’” said Ranae Heur, 31, a digital marketer and umami class participant. “She was disappointed.”

Oliver and her roommate decided to attend the class because of their shared love of cooking at home together. By learning more about umami, both hoped they could broaden their at-home dining repertoire.

Chef Marton said many amateur food lovers come to the class for the same reason.

“People who work full time are willing to give up a Saturday to learn about this one thing,” said Marton. She thought at first that the class “would be for foodies, but we’re getting a high percentage of professionals.”

Perry, who became interested in cooking and nutrition growing up in the United Kingdom during World War II, said that umami-centered cooking is a major draw to working individuals who want to stretch their budgets.

“Every culture has a tradition of introducing it into even the most impoverished diets,” said Perry. “An Italian friend tells of her grandparents chopping up two anchovy fillets—high in umami—and tossing them over spaghetti with dried bread crumbs and chopped parsley: the dinner before payday.”

E-mail: att2113@columbia.edu