What is Umami?

A revolution in the understanding of taste has occurred in the last few years.

Western science has traditionally identified four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter, determined by cognate taste receptors on various parts of the tongue. Culinary tradition has maintained that those four tastes combine to make all known flavors.

Asia, on other hand, has traditionally favored the notion of five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot (pepper hot). These five tastes have been referenced in Chinese literature from at least the third century B.C.

In Japan, Umami has replaced the fifth taste – hot – which is considered to be one of the basic tastes, with its own taste receptor on the tongue. Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University, who was intrigued by the distinctive flavor of seaweed broth, first identified Umami as a distinct taste in 1908. He isolated and identified at least one element of the Umami taste – the amino acid glutamate. Umami is perhaps as difficult to translate into English as the French word Terroir. Linguists have suggested that Umami (pronounced oo-mom’-ee) has English equivalents, such as savory, essence, pungent, deliciousness, and meaty. Umami is associated with an experience of perfect quality in a taste. It is also said to involve all the senses, not just that of taste. In the Asian context there is both a spiritual and mystical quality to Umami. In the West it has been controversial whether Umami constituted a basic taste. This objection has been now been overcome by the isolation and characterization of the Umami taste receptor by Nirupa Chaudhari and coworkers at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Additional studies by Adler et al., have shown that a two-component receptor, consisting of a common component and two other components determines the sensory response to either sweet or umami tastes.

The importance of the fifth Umami taste in the context of wine was first recognized and articulated by Master of Wine Tim Hanni. He has written a number of very incisive articles regarding the role of Umami in determining the quality and pleasure of wine and food interactions.

The significance of Umami in explaining why perfectly matured wines are an optimal accompaniment to a diverse range of modern cuisine has been developed by Randy Caparoso, corporate wine buyer for Roy Yamaguchi’s family of Roy’s restaurants. His research demonstrates that the multidimensionality of Umami wines allow a greater range of favorable wine and food synergies than can be achieved with soft, fruity, one-dimensional wines. (BTW – Michael Romano, Mikey’s Marinade founder, is a certified sommelier of wine)

Most modern wines are made for immediate consumption and evoke the taste sensations of sweet, salty, bitter and sour. These “Fast Wines” are well matched to the spectrum of flavors found in “Fast Food.” Umami is synonymous with the taste of perfection – a wine that is at its apex of flavor maturity and quality. The same holds true for the ultimate umami experience of grilled meat marinated in Mikey’s “New York” Steak Marinade.