The tastes of sweet, salty, bitter and sour are familiar, but there is a fifth taste we can perceive with our tongue. Called umami, its taste has been described as rounded, rich and savory.
Of the five tastes, umami (a Japanese-coined name) is our favorite to think about when cooking. It’s usually matched with salt to add depth and complexity to foods that may lack depth and complexity on their own. Traditional examples (the map comes from the Umami Information Center) of umami-rich foods include soy sauce, miso paste and bonito flakes in Asian cuisine; and cured ham, cheese, tomatoes, ketchup and mushrooms in Western cuisine.
Let’s leave the origin of taste to evolutionary biologists and just agree that our tongues have evolved to make us want the things we need to live. The compounds that exude umami form the essential building blocks of proteins, which we need along with sugar and salt to survive. Somewhere along the line, we developed an aversion to bitter and sour tastes, probably to help us avoid dangerous substances. But we’ve learned to overcome those aversions and often enjoy those tastes, too.
Recognizing the power of umami helps us understand our cravings. It also helps explain why we crumble cheese on a roasted beet and arugula salad or why we add a dollop of tomato paste to the base of a stew or why we splash soy sauce in a stir-fry. They all make a meal more satisfying.