Umami—“the beautiful taste”

An old word dusted off for a new age

As a bit of background, I first heard the word umami in a presentation on the quality of flatfish in the Bering Sea harvest by NOAA research scientist Dr. Diane Green. It had something to do with the quality of flavor as affected by how fish was handled during and after harvest.

I became intrigued, fascinated and then obsessed with learning more about this word, especially when everyone I asked, including Dr. Greene, had so much difficulty explaining it.

I began asking every Japanese person and anyone who spoke Japanese and was acquainted with the culture what his/her understanding of the word was. In Hawaii I had the unique opportunity to sit with a group of Japanese cooking teachers and culinary scholars in an impromptu round table discussion of the word. The discussion was fascinating but no consensus. Just about each person had a different interpretation of umami.

It became increasingly clear that umami has two different meanings:
1. A more recent scientific definition which is translatable and refers to a fifth taste (a savory, pungent meaty taste) or the chemical basis for that taste …msg.
2. An older philosophical /cultural meaning probably rooted in Zen Buddhism or Shinto.

We know sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes. Umami was introduced to describe the qualities of a meaty taste, the same taste induced by monosodium glutamate. My research traced the first use umami as a fifth taste to the marketing of MSG when it was manufactured as a flavor enhancer after Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo discovered the flavor enhancing properties of glutamic acid in 1909. The manufacture of  monosodium glutamate (MSG), made at the time from wheat gluten, was patented by the Ajinomoto Corporation of Japan in 1909. Interestingly the name Ajinomoto means essence of taste. The Ajinomoto company promoted the idea of Umami, the fifth taste. to market MSG. MSG was not well-known in the U.S. until it was marketed as the flavor enhancer Accent after the second world war. The FDA rejected umami as the fifth basic taste in the 1950s, categorizing it as a flavor enhancer.

It was the older definition I was intrigued with. The more recent fifth taste meaning kept getting in the way of my understanding of the older meaning.

The older definition of umami does not translate easily, if at all, into English. In attempting to translate umami into English, Japanese will use words like taste, flavor, deliciousness, and essence and then say but that’s not quite it. Most Japanese experience frustration trying to put umami into English.

After seven years of trying to understand the umami concept and talking about it to anyone who would listen I began using it my consulting work. Building on success, at a certain point I felt comfortable enough to teach it, at first within the context of  my client relationships with restaurants, supermarket staffs and growers and then in full day seasonal workshops for chefs and food professionals at the Herbfarm and for various organizations like the Les Chaines des Rotisseurs.

Distilling my notes from my conservations with quite a number Japanese I put together a kind of umami manifesto for use as a teaching handout. Not being or speaking Japanese, I’m still not sure if my understanding of umami is consonant with its use in Japanese. Jeffrey Steingarten, award-winning food writer at Vogue and well-schooled in Japanese culture, says it is not.

Some Japanese say I am off-base with what I’ve put together; others tell me they are happy to see this kind of meaning advanced.

Whether or not I have the Japanese sense of umami entirely correct, the concept, as developed, has been well received by chefs like Paul Bertoli, Rick Moonen, Jerry Traunfeld, Greg Atkinson. Michael Tusk, Ron Zimmerman, Danielle Custer, and  Peter Drohomyrecky who are happy to have such an approach and way to think about  ingredients they use and the food they prepare. Ruth Reichl used the older sense of umami in a New York Times restaurant review. Tom Sietsema has used it in the Washington Post. A number of Seattle writers have used it to describe a sense of perfection in a food.

I asked my students to disregard or suspend the fifth taste definition in favor of the older definition which captures so well a food in its state of grace when it has become all it can become.

Japanese kanji are similar to the Latin roots of many of our words.

The kanji in umami separate into the kanji for beautiful and taste. Beautiful taste.

In the Japanese language, umami is used mostly in the context of food. In a non-food context, a stock market tip with much promise is said to have umami as is a particularly good piece of writing. In these two uses both a sense of promise and quality are conveyed.

In Shinto and Buddhism, each food’s natural flavor, color, shape and aroma are considered a gift from nature to be enjoyed and revered. This combination of qualities can be thought of as a food’s umami.

A food has umami when it has become all that can be, when it is at its peak of quality and fulfillment.  Before that point a food has potential for umami.  After that point the food has lost it, or in the words of Masa Takayama, owner-chef of Masa in New York, “umami goes away.”

Umami can involve all of the senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste.

Umami wakens positive emotions.

Umami contains promise of pleasurable outcome.

Umami conveys a sense of beauty.

Anticipation enhances umami.

If a food has umami, umami does not exist unless we have the experience and understanding to recognize it.

Seasonality and ripeness are essential elements.

If picked too soon, a food may never achieve umami.

Umami usually implies proximity to the growing area.

Umami can be lost if a food is harvested, prepared or served with neglect or disrespect.

Education, experience and understanding elevate and refine our perception and enjoyment of umami.

Our perception and appreciation of umami are enhanced by occasion and setting, timing and preparation, presentation and service.

With English lacking such a word, the concept of umami gives us a framework to discuss, understand and enjoy perfection in a food, when it has become all it can be, when it has fulfilled itself.

Umami presumes the inherent goodness of foods.

- Jon Rowley, 2009

This entry was posted in flavor, taste and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

75 Responses to Umami—“the beautiful taste”

  1. Jen Laceda says:

    I found this post via Dorie Greenspan. I love it! Learned so many things about umami today. When I dined at Per Se, “umami” was the first word that came to my mind…

    • Jon Rowley says:

      Jen,
      Thank you for the first comment on my first blog post! I have never eaten at Per Se but I did have occasion to be in the Per Se kitchen once. Very Zen-like. Quiet precision.

  2. Hello, I found this post via Michael Ruhlman’s tweet. Sorry, I am hopelessly out of touch with who is who in America, though I am trying to catch up through the blog world. I’m a bit rooted in Berkeley when it comes to the U.S. food scene.

    Having lived my life creating and eating food since I was a child, I bring some “legs” to my second (post Bay Area) life in Japan on an organic farm with my Japanese husband and family. It has now been 22 years since I left the U.S.. I have seen this “umami” hype grow and just rolled my eyes at the thought that Ajinomoto had created this ridiculous fervor for a made up flavor. You are totally on point with all of your sensitive thoughts regarding what 旨味 really represents in a deep sense. It is pure folly to try to put “aji” (loosely, “taste” in many senses of the word, i.e. cool old things have “aji” misshapen pottery has “aji”) or “umami” into English. And why do we have to, anyway? Why not embrace the idea intuitively?

    I suspect that you would not really have needed to ask a lot of Japanese about this as you seem like the kind of person who does just get it. And I am sorry to say, many Japanese don’t these day. But hey, let’s just keep that between us. OK?

    Beautiful piece, thanks. But next time trust yourself, you’ve got the sense.

    Nancy

    • Jon Rowley says:

      You can’t know how much your comment means to me. Thank you, thank you thank you. I learned soon enough about untranslatabilty and I appreciate your comment on just appreciating the concept intuitively which I do, of course, but I was seduced by the desire to have a word with which to communicate to others the near religious experience of interacting with a fish or a peach or a tomato when they are all that they can be, so much so that they transcend our perceptions. There is a state of grace there. A word that also conveys a kind of blessedness to be honored with the opportunity to experience a food of such qualilty, a word that conveys the respect for such foods. Such a word is too much to ask from language but I had a notion than umami, from what I thought I understood of it, might come close.

      Thank you again for writing and sharing your thoughts, especially as they come
      from an organic farm in Japan. You are appreciated.

  3. Interesting that Nancy mentioned Michael Ruhlman’s tweet because as I read your post, I couldn’t stop thinking about his writing about “Finesse”. I’ll have to look it up again (it’s been long ago since I read it) but I’m sure there is a connection.
    Glad you started a blog :) Congrats!

    • Jon Rowley says:

      Nurit, Thank for the reference to Ruhlman’s writing about “Finesse”. I would like to read it if you find a link.

      As for the blog, I couldn’t have done it without help! I am very clumsy with anything that involves technology. I was born 150 years too late.

  4. Swiss Charrd says:

    Umami – Being in the now in the experience of the food at it’s perfection.
    Or as Gluten Free Girl likes to say, “Joy In The Belly”.
    Thanks great blog.

  5. Sonja says:

    Congrats on the new blog Jon. I can’t wait to read more.

  6. Jon Rowley says:

    Thanks Sonja. There will surely be a blog on herring.

  7. linda says:

    The concept of umami is particularly resonant with me at this moment in time as I timidly pry my way into the much-maligned realm of molecular gastronomy. I’ve been on a tireless quest to distill that elusive element of taste for years, and this month I’m trying to do it by concentrating small doses of powerful flavor into tiny capsules that burst in the mouth for that final, indulgent complement to the perfect bite. I think the reason it is so hard to define lies in the fact that it is so fundamentally present, like a soul, but wholly impossible to refine, manufacture or possess- again, like a soul. Unrelated- congrats on joining the blogosphere- will bookmark your site and check back.

    • Jon Rowley says:

      Linda,
      Good luck on your quest. It is good to have a quest. I wish I could share my peach with you. I looked for it for years. I haven’t learned yet to insert a photo (or a taste).

  8. barbara says:

    Congrats on your first post. I’m looking forward to your seafood posts.

    I found this post interesting. Are you aware of this site? http://www.umamiinfo.com/on 3 s

    Over the past 6 years I’ve been through 3 different chemo regimes. With each of them, all I wanted to eat was potato chips, Big Macs, Kebabs. I think research into umami and chemo would be interesting, and useful in helping cancer patients to determine a diet while under treatment.

  9. Treehouse says:

    MFK Fisher would love your blog, Jon. Bravo!

  10. Jon Rowley says:

    Barbara,
    I wish you the best possible outcome and many beautiful tastes.

    Thank you for the link. I was not aware of the Umami Information Center, let along their website. Fascinating information but I was pursuing the “beautiful taste” definition rather than the “5th taste”. As I mentioned in my post, I encountered Japanese chefs and scholars who were about 50% encouraging and 50% discouraging in my understanding of umami. Confusing. Based on some fascinating email discussions that this post has generated I am now trying to locate Japanese food history and language scholars who can speak to how “umami” was used prior to 1900, prior to its use by the Ajinomoto Corporation to promote MSG. Stand by.

  11. Joe says:

    I’m not sure if this is accurate, but I always think of “umami” as description for how the end result of the Maillard reaction tastes. The Maillard reaction results in many different flavors compounds (wikipedia states that it’s the most essential chemical process to the flavoring industry) – most of which we associate with “savory”, “meaty”, or “roasted” (i.e. coffee). These are similiar adjectives with which umami is often described. Any thoughts about this?

  12. jonrowley says:

    Joe,
    I want the Maillard reaction or bronzing happening when I am cooking salmon but this is different than selecting a salmon for how it is going to taste based on type, oil content, season, handling on the boat, freshness and all of those factors which go into salmon quality. That is how I come at it. The Maillard Reaction flavors are all the more interesting when a fish has umami in the way I understand the word. Good question.

  13. deetour says:

    Great blog.

    Umami reminded me of the book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The author talked about umami, he just didn’t have that word. He struggled to understand quality and value as something recognized before rational thought could run its analysis, cataloging the components.

    Umami is apparent, before conscious thought invents a reason to wrestle
    with it. It defies description because if it could be described, it
    would no longer be umami. The closest one can come to describing umami
    is to describe the experience of it. And that will be different next
    time.

    Maybe Maslow could have used umami instead of peak experience.

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  15. George Hillenbrand says:

    I’ve been friends for 10 year with Chef Suzuki at Hachi Ju Hachi in Saratoga, CA. He’s very traditional, but omits the “very” because he sees traditional is a yes/no and not a matter of degree. He once served me a turnip that was better than anything I’d ever eaten. I said, “now I understand why God created turnips”. I asked him what word described the wholeness of the food and dining experience including the taste, all the senses, the interplay between items, etc, and he replied umami, but not the western translation. It’s what you begin to understand if/when you mature, a journey. And so I searched and found your post. I love your description that it’s something being all that it can be. Thank you. I hope you have or will post more. George

  16. jonrowley says:

    George,
    Thank you for this. My apologies for the tardy reply. It sounds like I would greatly appreciate Suzukisan and as well as the restaurant. I will make a note to make it a destination. I love your turnip story. That was exactly the sense of the thing I was trying to convey. I like what Suzukisan said about “It’s what you begin to understand…” It comes with growing and cooking turnips for many years. The higher the understanding, the more life in the soil it is grown in and the simpler the preparation. Your description of that turnip makes me yearn to see and taste it. Thank you for writing.

    I will try to write more.

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  24. Ashley says:

    Would an example of umami as you understand it be like taking the FIRST bite into a perfectly ripe, juicy summer peach? Or plopping a sun-warm, salt-sprinkled slice of the first garden tomato of summertime into your mouth? That emotional sensation of, “Ahhh…it doesn’t get any better than this” when you can’t think about anything except how mind-blowingly delicious the thing is that you’re eating? I’ve used the word “flavorgasm” to describe that before…is that close to what you mean?

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  47. Megan says:

    I am a self taught cook, amateur home chef lol. I’ve seen lots of cooking shows where the use the word, sometimes seemingly incorrectly lol. I loved this article on it. Very good description. I don’t like the meaty definition at all. To sum it up in English differently than it was done in this article (but i thought it was so well defined), I’d say umami is a foodgasm, when you take that bite and your body reacts saying yessss, omg this is perfect.

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