Umami: Why the Fifth Flavor Shouldn't Go It Alone

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An assortment of food with umami flavor

It was with mixed feelings that I saw the news recently that Los Angeles–based Umami Burger was planning to expand nationally. On the one hand, as I recently wrote, I'm desperate for somebody to start a good national burger chain. And Umami's founder, Adam Fleischman, is a menschy guy whom I look forward to one day going on a burger crawl with. On the other hand, I really don't like his burgers at all. But maybe that's because I'm antiumami.

What is umami? For starters, it's the mysterious element that made GQ's Alan Richman name Umami Burger the 2010 "Burger of the Year." It's the culinary magic found in seaweed, soy sauce and half of the Japanese dishes you've eaten at one time or another. You'll also find umami in tomatoes, potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, oysters, sardines, Parmesan cheese, steak sauce and cured ham. It's the cause of meaty mouthfeel and the active ingredient in MSG. Derived primarily from glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid, umami is a flavor you can't get by combining any other flavors. Which means it's a primary flavor, like the four others you learned about in school: salt, sweet, sour and bitter. The idea that there was a fifth one nobody knew about was pretty radical — like finding a sixth finger on your hand that you had never noticed before, or an additional member of ZZ Top.

But the science of flavor is developing, just as gastronomy is, and it is young whereas the art of cooking is old. Scientists have discovered that we have taste receptors on our tongues that are dedicated to a fifth kind of flavor, that respond completely differently from the receptors we've known about for so long, and it took until the 1980s to figure this out? It's hard to believe, but it's true. For that matter, the very existence of umami as a separate flavor wasn't discovered until 1908, when Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at Tokyo Imperial University, first isolated the unique compounds behind it. This, despite the fact that Japanese housewives had been making dashi broth from seaweed for thousands of years.

But science, especially the science of taste, has always been a complicated business. I'm perfectly willing to forgive flavor scientists their long lacuna; it's the cooks I have a problem with. Despite the fact that umami is frequently translated from the Japanese as "deliciousness" or "savoriness," it's really neither; like salt, it's best used as a flavor enhancer. Salt doesn't taste good by itself, even in its most expensive and exalted volcanic-smoked crystal form; but put it with something else, and it immediately makes that other thing better. It was for this reason that I declared salt cocaine for the palate, a white powder that makes everything you taste seem more fun and exciting. (In this analogy, sugar is heroin. Umami? Possibly palate Prozac.)

Umami has frequently been used as a flavor enhancer, in both Eastern and Western cultures. In China, it's found in black mushrooms, bean paste and dried shrimp. We get it straight up via the wonderful substance known as MSG, which some chefs use by the fistful, but also via common ingredients like stock or broth, not to mention anything fermented. Interestingly, our attachment to umami starts early: human breast milk is said to be very rich in the taste.

The truth is that that our flavor receptors, or what used to be called our taste buds, are still pretty much a mystery, even now. Umami isn't even the latest taste sensation on the block; there's a new one, called kokumi, that various diabolically clever chefs and scientists are talking about, and I'm sure it won't be long before that too is isolated as a flavor enhancer. I suspect that there are other sensations that they just haven't gotten around to discovering yet either, like smoke and the many different sensations that all get lumped together under the name spiciness.

But the thing is, I don't really like umami on its own, any more than I like saltiness or, for that matter, sourness or bitterness. And the more chefs and food manufacturers lean consciously on this newfound sensation, the less good the food it's enhancing tastes. In recent years there have been umami-tasting dinners, umami restaurants, umami seasonings — and now an Umami Burger chain, with the promise of many more locations flavoring their burgers with anchovies, tamari, Worcestershire sauce, Marmite and other umami-rich tastes. Umami Burger isn't savory, or delicious, in my opinion; it just tastes weird. Now, you can say that it tastes that way to me because I'm not familiar with umami. But that's not true. I am familiar with it, and so are you. We just aren't familiar with it in its uncut state. Who's to say what belongs on a burger? Just you and your taste receptors. But they have to form a consensus. The hippest one can't just secede and order a burger on his own.

Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for, appears every Wednesday.