Coq au Vin
Coq au vin (originally rooster cooked with wine, now chicken) is the favorite umami recipe of umami expert David Kasabian. It’s in his book, The Fifth Taste - Cooking with Umami. Here‘s the recipe, via the Umami Information Center.




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KAREN HOCHMAN is Editorial Director of THE NIBBLE.



September 2006
Last Updated March 2012

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Salts & Seasonings

Umami Taste: Beyond Sweet, Sour & Salty

Page 2: Umami: The “Old” New Taste


This is Page 2 of a six-page article. Click on the black links below to visit other pages.

The Modern Era Of Umami

Everything old is new again. The “new” taste, umami, was identified almost 100 years ago, in 1908, by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University. He had sought to scientifically identify an official fifth taste, which was recognized for centuries in dashi, the kombu- (dried seaweed, see photo below) and bonito-based Japanese fish stock. Dashi, meaning “boiled extract,” is the basis of all Japanese boiled dishes and soups.

In 1908 Dr. Ikeda succeeded in extracting glutamate (or glutamic acid, an amino acid) from kombu and discovered that it was the main active ingredient in kombu. He coined the term “umami” to describe its taste. While umami is an invented word in Japanese, the closest English equivalent is brothy or meaty, with a connotation of savory.

But foods with no meat or broth—tomatoes and parmesan cheese, for example—are loaded with the glutamate and the flavors of umami. Umami is a subtle taste that occurs naturally in many vegetables and dairy products as well as in meat, fish and seafood. The challenge is, it’s not as easily recognizable as sweet, salty, bitter and sour—at least in the Western diet.

Umami is the result of the presence of glutamate plus five ribonucleotides including inosinate and guanylate. Glutamate is naturally present in some degree in most foods.


Kombu, a large brown algae that we call dried seaweed, is the basis of dashi, Japanese fish stock. The types of kombu used for dashi are only harvested around the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan. Photo courtesy of The Umami Information Center.

Inosinate and guanylate are present in many foods (inosinate is found primarily in meat, guanylate is more abundant in vegetables). Another nucleotide, adenylate, is abundant in fish and shellfish.

After identifying umami, Dr. Ikeda introduced the new seasoning monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which has a strong umami taste. It was first marketed in 1909.   Dr. Ikeda was later named one of Japan’s top 10 inventors by the Japanese Government Patent Office.

The closest Western product, that people could identify as “brothy,” bouillon cubes, had been developed more than 25 years earlier by a Swiss flour manufacturer, Julius Magi.

The bouillon cube, made from hydrolyzed plant protein was originally conceived as a nutritious vegetable protein substitute for soup-making for people who could not afford meat.


Bouillon Cubes
Bouillon cubes. Photo by Rainer Zenz | Wikimedia.

But the rapid-cooking soups evolved into an important business, providing meaty (brothy) convenience and flavor-enhancement in cooking convenience to many households. Prior to Dr. Ikeda’s research years later, it was not known that the protein hydrolysates in bouillon cubes are full of glutamates—or that the flavor sensation could be described as umami.

The Profile Of Umami

In 1960, further scientific research revealed how combining a glutamate with an inosinate (ribonucleotides from meat) creates the perfect umami taste. The classic, brothy flavors of three major cuisines fits this profile:

Japanese Dashi Kombu (Kelp) + Bonito Flakes
Chinese Tan

Chinese Cabbage
Chinese Leek

+ Chicken Bones
Western Bouillon Onion + Leg of Veal

Of course, this culinary “magic” was in use for 1000 years throughout the world before the science was understood, or umami had a name.

The umami taste itself blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, just as the other tastes, e.g. sweet and salty (sugar and salt), are in of themselves not primary tastes. But blended with other tastes, they produce something delicious. Because umami had no name for so long, few people have been trained to recognize umami when they encounter it. Most of us don’t taste umami when eating ripe tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus, parmesan cheese, cured ham, mushrooms, meat or fish, the way we taste bitter and sour. It may take a generation for a typical group of diners to discuss the umami undertones of a dish, the way they might today talk about the bitter greens in a mélange of vegetables.

Continue To Page 3: Ancient Umami

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