Umami Culture Around the World

Explore the history of umami and its impact across the globe

The umami-rich foodsUmami Information Center

Throughout history, human beings have created various seasonings and condiments to improve the taste of food. Salt, sugar, and vinegar have been familiar flavor-enhancers for thousands of years and this is why we can all readily imagine sweet, sour, and salty tastes. Umami too is contained in a variety of foods, and is familiar to us from the taste of traditional foods, such as soy sauce, miso, and cheese. However, it is only around a century ago that umami was discovered as a basic taste, when monosodium glutamate was invented and launched as an umami seasoning.

Umami history Umami historyUmami Information Center

Professor Kikunae IkedaUmami Information Center

It was long thought that there were only four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Then a scientist in Japan – Professor Kikunae Ikeda from Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) – noticed the presence of a taste that did not fit into any of these categories. Professor Ikeda discovered the main taste component in kombu dashi (broth or stock) to be glutamate, and named it “umami”. The professor also wrote an academic paper explaining the existence of umami as one of the basic tastes. Following in Professor Ikeda’s footsteps, other Japanese scientists have discovered the umami substances inosinate and guanylate.

Traditional seasonings and foods in the worldUmami Information Center

What traditional foods and ingredients contain umami?

There are a great variety of traditional seasonings and foods all across the world. Most of them are fermented, dried, or salted for the purpose of long preservation. In this process, glutamate and other umami substances increase and add richness to the dish. Here, we show some umami-rich ingredients that are cherished by local people.

Traditional foods around the world and umami Traditional foods around the world and umamiUmami Information Center

Fermented foods in Ancient RomeUmami Information Center

Ancient fermented seasonings

Throughout the Ancient Roman Empire, fermented fish sauces called garum and liquamen were used as seasonings. These ingredients were equally as important as wine and olive oil. They were produced in the same way as the fermented condiments of South East Asia, with fish, such as sardines and mackerels, being salted and fermented. In particular, the amber-colored garum extracted first from the fermentation process was most highly prized. The famous ‘Apecius Cookbook’ of Ancient Rome contains many recipes where, in times when there was no sugar or salt, garum was frequently used. One could say that garum was prized as a condiment which combined umami and saltiness. The use of garum died out along with the Roman Empire, however anchovy paste and sauce can be seen as its modern counterpart.

Cherry tomatoUmami Information Center

How the age of discovery transformed dinner tables

Tomatoes, which originated in South America, were brought to Europe when Columbus discovered the continent. It appears that they were originally used for medicinal purposes, but in Italy they underwent a re-evaluation. They were used to form the basis of a wide variety of dishes, and are now an indispensable ingredient of Italian cuisine. In the UK, Worcester Sauce was made from tomatoes and a wide variety of other vegetables. This was eventually exported to America, along with tomato sauce and paste, where a variety of processed foods such as ketchup and chili sauce were produced. Today, tomatoes are one of the most widely produced vegetables on the planet and their umami taste is appreciated all over the world.

Asian fermented seasoningsUmami Information Center

Seafood and grains: the bedrock of flavor in rice-eating cultures

Different types of fermented seasoning can be found throughout the world. Fish sauces, such as Num Pla in Thailand and Nuoc Mum in Vietnam, along with a range of fermented products typified by miso and soy sauce, have long been used and appreciated in Asian countries. Fermented condiments are made by adding salt to fish, beans, and grains, allowing them to ferment. During the fermentation process, proteins are broken down into their constituent amino acids, and a condiment which contains high quantities of glutamate is produced. Particularly in Asian countries with a tradition of wet rice cultivation, daily cooking which does not include the addition of seasonings, is unimaginable. This is a particular characteristic of countries where white rice, vegetables, and fish form the staple diet. Rice based diets and simple forms of umami are very closely linked.

Comparing soups the world overUmami Information Center

Comparing soups around the world

The dashi of Japan, bouillon from France, and Chinese tang - ingredients and uses may differ, but all these soups are indispensable to their respective cuisines. Analysis of their content reveals all to be rich in the umami substances glutamate and inosinate, and all are striking in their intense taste. Both east and west make clever use of umami. Japanese dashi is simple, composed mainly of glutamate, inosinate, and the weaker umami substance aspartate. In contrast, bouillon and tang have high levels of amino acids that are not umami substances, but consequently have more complex tastes.

Compare ingredients of dashi Compare ingredients of dashiUmami Information Center

Umami for the next generation Umami for the next generationUmami Information Center

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