Umami is a word bandied about often on fancy menus and cooking shows, but what actually is it?

What actually is umami in food?

What actually is umami in food?

Most of us nod knowingly when it comes up, without fully understanding what it means – let alone how to incorporate more umami into our meals.

The Oxford Dictionary describes umami as "a category of taste in food (besides sweet, sour, salt, and bitter), corresponding to the flavour of glutamates, especially monosodium glutamates." Got that? It also comes from the Japanese word for 'deliciousness'.

Clearly it's not as easy to identify as tastes like 'sweet' or 'sour', so let's examine it a bit more closely….

What does umami taste like?

Salt, sweet, sour and bitter might be the four main tastes, but umami is the fifth, and just as important.

It's not particularly easy to describe, possibly because it doesn't really exist on its own. In fact, the only pure form of umami is monosodium glutamate (MSG), a chemical often added to dishes in Chinese takeaways, but it has a controversial history wrapped up in xenophobia and misinformation.

Umami is thoroughly savoury, and has a recognisable tang that is almost meaty, like a Japanese broth, even though it also occurs in vegetarian food.

What foods have umami flavours?

Glutamate is an amino acid, and anything containing high levels of it tends to have an umami taste. Even if it's described as having a somewhat meaty, full-bodied taste, there are plenty of vegetables that score high on the umami scale, like tomatoes, mushrooms and asparagus.

Many types of seafood (like sardines, tuna and prawns) offer umami, while meat, including matured meats – like beef jerky – also have that distinctive umami taste.

Another aspect of umami is mouthfeel – how it feels when you eat it. And umami flavours are likely to linger long after you've swallowed, for example, walnuts and cheese – the more mature, the more umami.

Chinese and Japanese cuisines are most commonly associated with umami, because both heavily incorporate flavourful broths and contain key umami-rich ingredients, like kimchi, soy and seaweed.

Umami is a taste, not a specific type of food, meaning there are no particular health benefits to it. However, because it's an amino acid, it's often found in foods high in protein, which the body uses to build and repair tissue.

What umami can really bring is a delightful dimension to your meals. If you're stuck in a cooking rut, try adding more ingredients to highlight the umami – that might be sprinkling walnuts on top of your salads or opting for extra mature cheese in your sandwiches, or amping up your tomato usage.

And umami-rich ingredients work well in harmony together, amplifying their collective umami hit – it's just up to you to do a bit of experimentation to excite your own palate.