Sources Of Umami

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Have you ever eaten something only to have a hard time describing the yummy taste? What you may have been unable to describe is umami. Biologically speaking, your taste buds are equipped to experience four basic flavours: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. After many years of eating and research, cooks and chefs now add umami to dishes, the (almost mythical) fifth taste of glutamates and nucleotides. 

Sources Of Umami

Where Did Umami Come From?

Obviously, it didn’t come from thin air -it’s always been here! People have always tasted it, without giving it the recognition it deserved. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that someone tried to describe umami. That person was Japanese chemist and food lover, Kikunae Ikeda.

When foods ferment and age, the proteins within undergo a molecular change. In this process, the proteins are completely broken apart into various units, one of which is a molecule called L-glutamate, the singular molecule responsible for umami. Similar to the other four basic tastes, umami is sensed when L-glutamate binds to specific receptors on your tongue, causing a chain reaction of chemical processes resulting in tastier food.

What Does Umami Taste Like?

The literal translation of the Japanese term means “pleasant, savoury taste” or “yummy,” but that hardly gives you much to go on. Let’s imagine these everyday items, rich in umami. Think kimchi, dried mushrooms, kombu or even vegemite! They all carry the signature of umami, and the list doesn’t end there. Lesser known umami-containing foods include such things as tomatoes, beetroot and soybeans.

Umami & Asian Food

Umami is the unique defining taste in a wide range of Asian cuisines. So many traditional foods and condiments of Asia are rich in umami. It is found in fermented plant-based products like beans and grains. Dried and fresh mushrooms, varieties of tea and fermented vegetables (like kimchi) are also excellent sources of this flavour bomb. In Southeast Asia, the most preferred seasonings containing umami are fish/seafood and soybean sauces. Vegan versions of fish sauce are now available in Asian grocers. In the East Asian region, soy sauces and fermented rice/bean pastes are widely used. In Japan, the umami rich vegan ingredients used to make dashi (the stock added to almost every soup and stew) is kombu & shiitake mushrooms.

 Sources Of Umami At Home

  • Tomatoes (particularly sundried or roasted)
  • Mushrooms (fresh or dried)
  • Vegemite
  • Soy sauce
  • Vegan fish sauce
  • Olives
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Gochujang (fermented red pepper paste)
  • Doenjang (fermented soybean paste)
  • Kombu (dried seaweed)
  • Dried stock powders
  • Pickled vegetables 
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