We all know the four basic tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, and salty. Remember the tongue diagrams from your kindergarten days? This may come as a shock to you, but there is a fifth basic taste: umami!
Umami is a concept that may be unfamiliar to you, but if you eat food you have definitely experienced umami. Maybe you have tried umami sushi or umami seasoning, but do you really know what umami is? Translated from Japanese, Umami roughly means “deliciousness”. This complex, intense taste is almost indescribable to some extent. Umami foods like seared beef, parmesan cheese, or miso soup leave you wanting more.
Let’s take a deep dive into what umami really is and how fermentation plays a role.
What is Umami?
The easy answer is that umami is the “fifth taste” but what does this actually mean? The term umami was coined in the early twentieth century by a Japanese chemist: Kikunae Ikeda. He was curious about the flavor that was dominant in “dashi” (a stock that is a staple in Japanese cooking). Ikeda found that glutamic acid was responsible for the taste of umami.
Let’s get scientific - the molecular compounds in glutamic acid (glutamates) bind to specific tongue receptors, creating this magical flavor! Basically, glutamic acids are the most important of umami’s ingredients. In a crystalline form, glutamates are known as MSG! Any food that contains glutamic acid whether naturally or from cooking, aging or fermentation is considered to be umami.
What is MSG?
Umami mostly doesn’t exist in isolation except in one form: MSG. In a crystalline form, glutamates are known as MSG (or monosodium glutamate). It is widely believed that MSG is something you should stay away from, although we are here to set the record straight. The combination of racism and xenophobia surrounding food with MSG created a false sense of negativity around it, leading many to believe it was bad for them.
There is a lack of evidence tying MSG to negative health effects, as many of the studies have flaws. Today, chefs, like Chef David Chang of Momofuku, have attempted to change the stigma around MSG and the flavor of umami is something they strive for within their recipes.
The umami flavor extends past just MSG and can be found in everyday food, from mushrooms, tomatoes, and aged cheese to fermented foods like fermented fish, miso soup, or soybean paste.
Fermentation and Umami
some fermented foods bring in that “umami” appeal. Although, not all fermented foods contain umami. Fermented foods like yogurt, sourdough, kombucha, and sauerkraut contain a sour note within their final taste, but no umami.
There are some foods that gain their umami taste as a result of fermentation. This can look very different in each fermented food. Here are some umami food examples that got their taste from fermentation.
Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish that has become popular worldwide! Kimchi is made using napa cabbage and left to ferment with additional seasonings including spicy gochugaru chili pepper. Kimchi makes the most of umami in the vegetable and the fermented seasonings.
Craving Kimchi? Our deliciously spicy Classic Kimchi is vegan kimchi with a fresh crunch. We make it easy to add the spice and umami of kimchi to any dish. Try it as a side or eat it by itself!
The earthy, savory umami flavor of fish sauce is thanks to fermentation. Although it may be fishy, this is complemented by a salty and briny taste, making it so crave-able. Fish sauce can be added to marinades, stir-fries, and salad dressings to achieve that umami complexity.
Miso is a seasoning made from soybeans, which are mixed with rice malt and then left to ferment. Koji is the secret culture behind many Japanese dishes, including miso. Koji is cooked rice and/or soya beans that have been inoculated with a fermentation culture - it is used to make popular foods like soy sauce, mirin, and sake.
In miso, the protein of the soybeans is broken down by fermentation into amino acids, resulting in a large amount of glutamic acid (meaning umami). Miso is a staple within Japanese cuisine due to this unique flavor!
Miso soup isn’t the only way to satisfy your miso craving. Gnarly Miso Jalapeño dressing and marinade packs a punch with fermented cabbage, green peppers, jalapeño, and miso. Our dressing is an easy way to eat healthily and reach that umami perfection in any dish!
Whether you drizzle it on your rice or dip your sushi in it - soy sauce is something that we all know and love. Soy sauce starts as a heat-sterilized liquid seasoning made with rice malt, saltwater, and the fermented “moromi” liquid. The main take away here: soy sauce contains a lot of the umami compound glutamic acid
Taste the Fermented Umami Flavor!
Fermentation can lead to a whole lot of good. At Cleveland Kitchen, we are passionate about creating fermented foods for all! From its health benefits to its taste, we believe fermentation is the answer to real, good food.
We understand cooking can be tough especially when faced with the challenge of healthy choices. We want to make healthy, quality food effortless, curating our dressings and sauerkrauts specifically for your everyday. Let’s face it - we don’t always have time to cook something healthy and tasty. We don’t want you to compromise either!