Umami. A word that continues to pop up on menus, magazine articles and even in the name of trendy new restaurants. A word that’s used to describe the highest achievement in flavour. A word that delights chefs and diners alike. In fact, Umami has grown 115% on menus from 2015-2019.1
But what exactly is umami, and why is everyone talking about it?
I took it to the official source—Instagram—to dig a little deeper. With over 335,000 posts tagged with #umami, people must understand this mysterious fifth flavour, right? Here’s what I found:
- A powdered seasoning promising to add a rich, yet subtle savoury flavour to anything you cook it with. “With no weird ingredients! It will trick your friends and family into thinking you’re a really good chef!” A magic powder? Hmm.
- Japanese food, and lots of sushi. You name it: tuna belly, poke bowls, salmon ramen, kimchi, chicken teriyaki, uni, dumplings, and miso glazed eggplant.
- I also found foie gras, picture perfect eggs with soft, runny yolks and…burgers? Not exactly the clear picture I was hoping for.
Umami means “deliciousness” in Japanese.
The dictionary defines umami as “A category of taste in food (besides sweet, sour, salty, and bitter), corresponding to the flavour of glutamates, especially monosodium glutamate.” Wikipedia states, “Umami or savoury taste is one of the five basic tastes. It has been described as savoury and is characteristic of broths and cooked meats.” That doesn’t explain all the sushi. There is a common Google search for “Is avocado an umami?”
So why all the confusion?!
Umami is difficult to define or describe, because it is a flavour, a sensation, that is quite complex. Scientists only started researching it in the 1980s. And while we were perfectly content with our original four tastes (sweet, sour, salty and bitter), we didn’t quite know how to react when a fifth one came along. Perhaps because the easiest way to explain it was from the purest form of umami, MSG, but that’s another debate for another day!
Without getting all scientific, umami is present in any food in which glutamic acid occurs or after cooking, aging, or fermentation. These glutamates bind to specific receptors in the tongue, causing a chain reaction of chemical processes, and then boom! This is when the magic happens. Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste associated with salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth. It brings a taste with meaty tones, and a savoury richness.2
It’s no wonder that umami is often associated with Asian cuisine, as the use of ingredients containing glutamates has been common for centuries. Ingredients like fermented fish sauce, miso, seaweed and soy sauce all contain a high level of the amino acid. In addition, menu incidence of these umami flavours continues to grow, with fish sauce and miso growing 67% and 20% from over 2 years, respectively.3 Other common drivers include mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and tomatoes, which some suggest is the reason ketchup is so commonly used as a condiment. Emerging umami flavours still on the rise include
- black garlic
- and yuzo koshu.4
But we can’t understand umami because it’s intangible as a taste. I recently saw oysters on a menu with an “umami mignonette". What does that taste like? I don’t know. Whereas if it said oysters with “sour orange mignonette", I could imagine the sourness I would taste. So to put it into simple terms, think about the reaction that happens in your mouth when you bite into a juicy, fatty seared steak. It coats your palate, makes your mouth water and leaves you wanting more. That, my friend, is umami.
Chef Dana Cohen
As a finalist on Season 10 of Hell's Kitchen on FOX (and returning for Hell’s Kitchen All Stars!), Dana Cohen gained the hard-earned respect of acclaimed Chef Gordon Ramsay and was dubbed the "Scallop Queen" for her seafood mastery.
A New Jersey native, Chef Dana grew up surrounded by family, friends and plenty of good food. She quickly learned a meal is more than just food; it is at the heart of many fond memories. As a young girl with a sophisticated palate, Dana could often be found in the kitchen at home experimenting with new recipes or down at her grandparents’ farm helping create a feast for the holidays.
At 16, Chef Dana was hired as a hostess at the local Italian restaurant in her hometown of River Vale. Determined to follow her passion, she begged her way into the kitchen and quickly proved she could handle the stress, pressure and long hours that are part of the job. There she became an integral member of the kitchen team and fell in love with the culinary world.
Chef Dana attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, which led to an externship at The Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach, Florida. During her time there, she was inspired by the fresh produce picked daily from the garden and local seafood caught just offshore. This is where she developed her cooking style, with a flair for transforming local and seasonal ingredients into simple yet memorable dishes.
As a chef instructor at the Viking Cooking School, Chef Dana explored her passion for sharing her love of food and cooking. There she taught a wide range of hands-on classes and cuisines to aspiring home chefs. Her most notable "student" was New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
Determined to find the best local dishes wherever she travels, Chef Dana is a firm believer that great food enhances any experience, from casual get-togethers to major life events. As an avid sports fan, it's not uncommon to find her with a football in one hand and tongs in the other as she shows off her tailgate cooking skills with friends.
Chef Dana advocates a healthy, active lifestyle and enjoys running, working out, and playing tennis. Her favorite dishes are often inspired by whatever catches her eye while strolling through the farmers' market and are then shared over a glass of wine and some laughs with good friends.
Foodservice Trend You’re Most Excited For:
Less is more. Chefs will focus on the quality of ingredients they are using rather than quantity of dishes on the menu and ingredients used within a dish. I am hoping to see more locally, sustainably raised meats and produce, and a widespread acceptance of the "farm to table" movement.
Biggest Concern for the Restaurant Industry:
I think kitchen labor is a big problem that will continue to grow. Rising labor costs and the challenge to find skilled, reliable staff.
Favorite UFS Product and Why:
When you say to yourself, "There's something missing!", Chicken liquid concentrated base is always the answer.
My Top 2 Umami Recipes
1 Datassential SNAP, May 2019
2 Mintel, Flavor Innovation on the Menu, 2018
3 Mintel, Menu Insights, 2018
4 Mintel, Menu Insights, 2019