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Ever wonder what makes Japanese food taste the way it does? It absolutely has a very distinct flavor, but how would you describe it?

A hundred years ago, the distinct flavor of Japanese food lead to the discovery of a brand new flavor: umami.

The Four Basic Tastes

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, & 4

If you want to describe the taste of your food, then you probably use a combination of a few different words: sour, bitter, salty, and sweet.

And in fact, for thousands of years people have used those four concepts to describe their food. Sure, you might branch out a little bit more by describing the textures (e.g. crunchy, tender) or compare it to another food, but at the very core, there wasn’t any other way to describe taste.

Why? Mainly because of this guy:

Hey kids! Stay in school!

This guy’s name was Democritus. Democritus, along with a bunch of other Greek thinkers like Socrates and Euclid, were pretty much the founders of western scientific and philosophical thought.

And Democritus theorized that foods tasted like one of the four basic categories because of the shapes of the food’s atoms.

To be fair, Greek thinkers got a lot of things right (like geometry!). On the other hand, they were wrong about a lot of other things (like leeches!).

And Democritus couldn’t be more wrong about the number of basic tastes. But nobody would challenge the scientific basis of this claim until thousands of years later, when an unknown Japanese scientist started questioning the status quo.

The Fifth Basic Taste

In the early 1900s, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda began to wonder if there might be a fifith basic taste. After examining lots of different foods that didn’t quite fit into the four other categories, Ikeda found it: the fifth taste.

He called it umami (うま味). Some cultures call it savoriness, but the term umami is used all across the world today.

What is umami exactly? It’s a little hard to describe. Umami is the kind of flavor that’s found in meat, cheese, and mushrooms. Again, think “savory.”

And not only did Ikeda discover umami, but he also created monosodium glutamate, or MSG.  So whenever you’re in a cheap Chinese restaurant that heaps on the MSG, thank Ikeda.

The Science of Taste

Why do things taste the way they do? How did Ikeda discover umami? It’s all in the science of food. (And no, I’m not talking about molecular gastronomy.)

There’s actually a scientific explanation behind each type of taste. Sourness, bitterness, saltiness, sweetness, and umami all have a chemical linked to them that make them taste the way they do.

For umami, that chemical is glutamate. Ikeda was able to figure out that all of the foods that had the umami flavor all had high levels of glutamate.

Why Japan?

 

How was umami discovered in Japan, of all places? Look into Japan’s history and it seems almost obvious.

Buddhism values all life, which is why Buddhist practitioners are sometimes vegetarian. So when Buddhism was first introduced in Japan way back in the day, meat was formally banned for a time.

Obviously, this ban wasn’t too long-lasting or always observed, but it did have some impact on Japanese food. To compensate for the lack of meat, Japanese developed a cuisine with lots of food rich in umami. Most of the foods that are the foundation of Japanese cuisine, like dashi and soy sauce, are very umami-heavy.

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What’s your favorite Japanese food? Tell me in the comments!

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[Header image by Miguel Michán.]

  • Kyoshi

    There’s an episode of Begin Japanology on Umami, might be worth watching.

  • http://thejrt.com/ JRT

    Well, this post has sorted out what I’m having for dinner tonight.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    The fifth basic taste. The last of the only five flavors your tongue can taste. Everything else is interpreted by smell, which is why you can’t taste anything when your sick.

    If we’re going with umami foods, last night I had pork chops and pan fried potatoes (like you eat for breakfast or brunch; not like french fries). Both were really good.
    Oh, if you use ketchup on the potatoes; you’re a heretic.

  • Kiriain

    You should burn me then. I put ketchup on ALL of the potatoes.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Glad to hear it! :D

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I haven’t watched Begin Japanology before, sounds like an interesting show!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I agree. Ketchup is the worst condiment IMO.

  • Brandon Inoue

    I love Umami.  Some interesting things about it:

    MSG is found naturally in lots of foods.  Highest food sources are Soy Sauce and Parmesan Cheese. 

    Anything with the words Hydrolyzed, Autolyzed, or Texturized has MSG in it.  Proteins are hydrolyzed and/or textured to create it.  Yeast is Autolyzed to create it as well.

    Asian people love AJINOMOTO (Japanese word for crystalline MSG).  Every Asian person I know (no matter where they’re from) swears that the Ajinomoto brand tastes better.  So much so that they even call it Ajinomoto.

    As a side note, I only trust Ajinomoto Brand Amino Acids for anything I ingest.  They have the cleanest and purest stuff on the market when it comes to their nutritional products.

    This flashes me back to a nice bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen from the little shop I used to live next to.  Tonkotsu wouldn’t have nearly the amount of weight, texture, or flavor if it wasn’t for Umami.

  • Anonymous

    I think the English word “savory” is more popular than “umami”, at least in English. 

    http://www.googlefight.com/index.php?lang=en_GB&word1=umami&word2=savory

  • Hailey

    Great, now I’m super hungry….

  • Michael

    “Hi, I’m Peter Barakan…” :D

    I miss that show haha – I’m at Uni without a TV, and even when I go home, they’ve replaced NHK World with NHK World *HD*, so I can’t watch that channel any more >.<

  • Anonymous

    I’m a sucker for scientific articles … this was great! The nerd in me appreciates ^.^

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thank you! Glad you liked it :)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I got really hungry writing it too :(

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    True, but savory does have a few different meanings in English

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    “They have the cleanest and purest stuff on the market”

    You make Ajinomoto sound like cocaine. If anything, Ajinomoto is more addictive.

  • Cmichael

    Excitotoxins are tasty, aren’t they? Who needs brain cells, anyway?

  • Retro Natural

    Call me simple but a bowl if miso soup is heaven to me..and I eat vegan so this makes a lotta sense..it’s soo savory but light and it just makes me happy lol..I totally sip outta the bowl.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I thought that most miso soup has dashi in it?

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    It’s far too sweet for my tastes.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    Well, I have some stakes, so get ready! I’m gonna make a big platform so that everyone can see you burn!

  • http://www.meow.fr Meow • Japan & Urbex

    I love the taste of it, it’s everywhere in Chinese cuisine too ! However, in Paris I heard a lot of people having trouble with it, some kind of allergy. Moreover, some others consider that it’s a poison, and will kill your neurones at a faster pace. Anyway, I don’t want to lose too much neurones thinking about it.

  • kuyaChristian

    Speaking of umami, there’s a burger joint in Los Angeles called Umami Burger and I leanred it via my AP Psychology teacher back in high school. I’ve always wanted to check it out. But I’m sure the umami behind it is the meat and tomatoes. 

  • Michael

    this was actually really interesting to read. thanks for the great post :D

  • Rashmi

    I thought ‘savoury’ belonged to the ‘salt’ family?  What about ‘spicy’? 

  • MilkyChocoxD

    Haha, I love how original the posts on this site are :3
    (That might have came across as a little sarcastic, but I’m being serious.)

  • meme

    you are super kawaii!

  • aodeur

    In Europe, the famous “Maggi Sauce” was used to add savoury to soups and other mails. It was actually produced very similar to soy sauce, but with wheat. For a long time, i guess, it was the only kind of “Instant-Umami” in western shop shelves, nowadays there’s hundreds of different Soy Sauces and other yummy Umami stuff.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    I hate it when people use the word umami, when the English version of the word (savory) has been around for a long time and describes the exact same type of taste.

    Pointless loan words are pointless.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    And so does umami, which more specifically means “a pleasant savory taste.”

  • Michael

    The broth part of miso soup *is* dashi, but there are different types of it I think (Wikipedia confirms that dashi can be made with kelp, sardines or mushrooms).  Just gotta check the label I guess… or y’know, not be vegan ;P

  • Michael

    My eyes!  Ze “kawaii” goggles do nothing!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    How much glutamate do you need to consume for them to turn into excitotoxins?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    no u

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thanks!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  • ZA다ルﻣ

    the “english word [that] has been around for a long time” meant something different for that “long time.” http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=savory&allowed_in_frame=0  ~~using “umami” instead of “savory” gives a much clearer distinction in what you’re trying to say. and, if wikipedia sources mean anything to you, the article is called “savoriness,” not simply “savory.”

    if it weren’t for loanwords, english would be dead. loanwords help when you’re trying to speak about another culture or when your own language doesn’t have a word that means quite the same thing. they’re not necessarily a bad thing!

    redundant pointless redundant meme is redundantly pointlessly redundant. lol.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    I have nothing against loan words, I love loan words! when there is no word for what we’re looking for in English. But again, we already have a word that means the same thing, so in this case, meme or not, it is still pointless.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Huh, I hadn’t heard about the whole “neuron-killing” part of glutamates. Interesting…

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Apparently “spicy” is classified as a taste, but not a “basic taste:”

    http://www.umamiinfo.com/2011/02/What-exactly-is-umami.php

  • Nicholas Meyer

    It has umami in the flavor profile, though.  Sweet, salt and umami.
    Not that umami magically makes it good – but just sorta an FYI.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Umami Burger came up quite a bit when I was doing research for this post. It looks like an interesting place, maybe I’ll check it out next time I’m in SoCal

  • Anonymous

    Hey, do you guys list family name first when referring to a Japanese person?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Generally, I refer to people using the western style of given name first, then family name.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    ‘Spicy’ is the sensation you get when capsaicin bonds to the nerve endings in your tongue (or anywhere else, but we’re talking about taste) and causes a sensation akin to a burn or scrape. The rest of the taste experienced while eating ‘spicy’ food is the taste of the food in question and is a separate entity from the sensation of ‘spicy’.

    Thus ‘spicy’ is not a taste, but a sensation mixed with a taste. The burning sensation of ‘spicy’ can be experienced anywhere on the body, though especially in parts protected mainly by a mucus membrane; such as the eyes, mouth, nostrils, genitals, and anus (we’re talking science here, don’t get embarrassed).

    The tongue only experiences five tastes. Through combination of those tastes and the scents released by the food, you experience flavor. So, amazingly, most of your sense of taste is dictated by your nose and not your tongue.

  • Tara

    天ぷら!

  • Yasashi

    I knew this flavour has something to do with Japan! The name was saying it! Thanks for explaining the history of it.

  • nagz

    umami was synthesized from a seaweed-like thing first, also, tomato is rich in it (especially its peel). too much umami consumption has burning skin, a bit swollen head, dizzyness and a faster hearth rate, called the “chinese restaurant syndrome”. i love it though (umami itself), always keeping a sack of it on my kitchen shelves :)

  • Anonymous

    I remember wondering since I was a kid why “savory” wasn’t listed among the four tastes… and then umami kind of exploded on Food Network within the past few years XD  And I’m like, “why not just call it savory?”  Oh well, it’s more Japanese culture to share with the world :D

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    You know, not to get super komakai on all of this, but I’ve always felt like umami was as much a sensation as it is a taste.  I mean, foods that are considered umami almost always have a salty taste as well, such as  miso soup and just about every Chinese dish ever.  Umami adds richness and depth to flavors, but by itself, it’s not really much of a taste.  Try slugging down a teaspoon of Ajinomoto and you’ll get the picture.

    Spicy, on the other hand, seems like a pretty valid taste to me.  But I guess if you want to call it a sensation, I could accept that.  I’m just not sure it’s less of a “taste” than umami.

  • Jonny Cook

    Check out Wikipedia though: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savoriness
    Savoriness redirects to Umami. Though it does say that it is popularly referred to as savoriness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1774168512 Roentgen Del Mundo

    my friend fed his dog with an enormous amount of “aji-no-moto”  monosodium glutamate, the next day it died. SAd T_T

  • Irruminada

    Yes, but what about spicy?

  • ZXNova

    Spicy isn’t really a taste, but rather a sensation. Cause of that you can have Spicy-Sour, Spicy-Sweet, Spicy-Bitter, Spicy-Salty, and Spicy-Umami (Savory). Spicy is just simply a sensation.

  • R

    lol You cant compare like that. Because savory is real English base. So it’s used in many type of sentence, not only about type of food taste.

  • Joshua Stevens

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word umami before this article, so at least in my realm of experience that seems true… though I also don’t watch food channel or anything like that.

  • Joshua Stevens

    I’ve only ever heard savory refer to food.