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Most cooks are aware of the four elemental tastes: bitter, salty, sour, and sweet. But central to Japanese cuisine is a fifth taste: umami. This Japanese word roughly translates to "savory" or "tastiness," and the flavor it describes is found in Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, meat, soy sauce, miso, and other foods that you could describe as "meaty" or "savory."
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Umami was first identified in 1908 by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda, who was trying to determine, in chemical terms, what makes dashi taste so good. (Dashi, as I wrote in an earlier post, is a stock made from simmered kelp and dried fish flakes; it's a fundamental ingredient in Japanese cuisine.) Ikeda discovered that glutamate, a compound derived from the simmered kelp (called kombu), was responsible for dashi's umami. But kelp was only half of it. Researchers later discovered other compounds that provide the umami taste, such as inosine monophosphate (IMP), which comes from the dried bonito fish flakes that make up the other half of the very simple dashi recipe. All that chemistry boils down to one essential culinary matter: yumminess.
Umami is what helps make certain vegetarian or nearly-meat-free dishes so satisfying. In sixth-century Japan, the rise of Buddhism, which prohibited eating meat, made vegetarian diets commonplace. As a result, cooks found other ways to enhance their food with a savoriness that usually comes from meat. "Buddhist food manufacturers in ancient Japan racked their brains for ways to make soybeans [among other foods] taste like meat," Author Travis Corson notes in his book, The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice. "The result was soy sauce and miso." Both brimming with umami.
If you want to learn more about umami, this blog post does a pretty good job of describing more about its chemistry. And this NPR story explains how umami relates to the important discovery of Auguste Escoffier, a 19th-century Parisian chef who'd probably have his own cooking show today.