Although umami is most frequently associated with Asian cultures and foods some of the most umami rich foods in the world are inherent in Italian cuisine: anchovies, aged Parmesan cheese, tomatoes.
History of umami in culinary culture
Umami has been a major factor in cuisine worldwide for many centuries although it was only given a name in 1908. A Japanese professor isolated glutamate (glutamic acid) in kombucha seaweed and called it umami (meaning pleasant savory taste).
People taste umami through taste receptors throughout the mouth that respond to glutamates. Optimum umami taste depends on the amount of salt in the food.
Garum, a fermented fish sauce that dates back to Roman times, is the original umami rich taste in Italian cuisine. Nowadays instead of garum anchovies and anchovy paste are used in the same way to enhance the umami in foods in Italian cuisine.
Umami - the 5th taste
Just as there are four primary colors but we perceive many more the same can be said for taste. Perhaps there are four primary tastes and umami is either the fifth taste or simply an additional perceived taste. However you decide to view it umami is a fundamental part of cuisines worldwide.
We are all familiar with the four tastes sweet, sour, salt and bitter but what about umami? And what is it? Umami is that sense of savory goodness, meatiness or brothiness, rounded flavor, balance or an overall harmonious state of perfection in food.
Umami in food cultures worldwide
Every culture has its own brand of umami, some more than others. It’s generally considered that Korea, China and Japan are the most umami-rich cuisines worldwide although Italy is right up there and full of some of the most umami rich foods in the entire world.
Umami in Italian Cuisine
If you take a look at the most umami rich foods worldwide at the top of the list are tomatoes (and especially sun-dried tomatoes and tomato paste), anchovies, cured ham like prosciutto, Parmesan cheese, seaweed, mushrooms and many cultured and fermented foods like cheese, soy, fish and Worcestershire sauce. So many of these foods are inherent in Italian cuisine and are foods Italians use on a daily basis.
Umami rich foods in Italy include tomatoes and tomato products, anchovies, aged Parmesan cheese, dried porcini mushrooms, taggiasca olives, mullet and bottarga, cheeses like Gorgonzola cheese, ‘nduja (an umami-rich spicy pork spread from the Calabria region).
And let’s not forget wonderful Italian products like aged balsamic vinegar.
All four of these dishes use aged pecorino Romano cheese, full of salty savory umami flavor. Three of the dishes use crispy bits of savory guanciale (pork jowl), and pasta all'amatriciana also uses a rich tomato sauce.
Italian Michelin star chef Cristina Bowerman loves to use enhanced umami flavor profiles in many of her dishes. One is a delightful risotto dish with bresaola, anchovies, butter, oranges and ginger.
Umami in American Cuisine
Within the American cuisine grilled hamburgers and a tomato pizza with cheese are two classic umami rich foods. Worcestershire sauce is rich in umami and is frequently used in the American cuisine as is barbecue sauce, gravy, bacon and tomato ketchup. Adam Fleishman created his California burger chain, Umami Burger, entirely based on the richness of umami flavor. He has created umami dust, spray and an umami master sauce to use on burgers. He also makes Parmesan cheese wafers, homemade ketchup and tomatoes baked overnight in soy sauce to enhance umami flavor.
Umami in Australian and British Cuisine
In Australian and British culture perhaps the most used umami rich foods are Marmite and Vegemite, both dark pasty spreads made from yeast extract. Although they're often used as a spread, which doesn’t necessarily have worldwide appeal, they're wonderful added to soups and broths in the same way one might use a bouillon cube or miso.
Why do we seek out umami flavor in foods?
Almost from day one human beings learn to love umami because both breast milk and amniotic fluid contain a high amount of glutamates.
Umami can be created and enhanced through food preparation techniques
In addition to those foods that are inherently loaded with umami, or high glutamate content, umami can also be enhanced through cooking and food preparation techniques.
Fermentation is one of the top umami enhancing techniques and is particularly used in Asian cuisine. Think about miso, Korean kimchi - the traditional Korean side dish made from vegetables and spices, or Japanese natto – fermented soy beans.
Aging is another culinary technique that brings out and increases the umami content in foods. Cheeses that are aged the longest like Italian 30-month Parmesan cheese are the most rich in umami. Or aged meats like prosciutto and bresaola, an aged, dried beef product.
Slow cooking and caramelizing
Slow cooking enhances umami flavor: braised meats and slow cooked broths.
Caramelizing foods also enhances umami which is why we roast bones before adding them to a sauce, or caramelize onions stovetop.
Drying and processing
Drying and processing meats is another way to break down proteins and release the free glutamic acid and thus increase the glutamates, or umami, in these foods.
Chefs like to pair glutamate rich foods together to enhance the umami of a dish to create what’s known as a umami flavor bomb. You might have a wonderful rich broth but adding just a touch of miso or caramelized onions to the broth will bring out and compound the umami flavor.
Umami in plant-based foods
Among plant-based foods the richest in umami flavor and glutamate content are tomatoes. As tomatoes ripen the glutamate content increases and it can be tripled by drying tomatoes, or cooking and reducing into a tomato paste.
Mushrooms are also a rich source of glutamate and umami flavor, especially shiitake (and porcini) which have 8 or 10 times the glutamate content of other mushrooms. A wonderful way to increase the umami flavor in mushrooms is by drying them.
A few other plant-based foods rich in umami are corn, green peas and garlic.
Seaweed, especially nori seaweed, is very high in glutamates, as is green tea.
Umami in seafood
Many kinds of seafood are naturally rich in glutamates and rich umami flavor: tuna, sardines, cod, shrimp, scallops. But the absolute richest in glutamate content among almost all foods are anchovies, a cornerstone of Italian cuisine, and when they are aged and fermented as the ancient Romans used to do to create garum the glutamate content and umami flavor explodes. If you add just a few anchovy fillets to a dish like spaghetti with clams it’s that secret ingredient that makes the flavor burst with delightful umami flavor.
Umami in desserts
Umami is most frequently associated with savory dishes and a sense of savoriness in a dish. And yet that’s not to say that it doesn’t do wonders to many desserts. It’s common practice to sprinkle a touch of sea salt or fleur de sel atop cookies and cakes which adds rich umami flavor to the dessert.
Some gelato takes full advantage of umami rich foods like Gorgonzola gelato or porcini mushroom gelato.
Single-origin fermented Peruvian chocolate adds wonderful umami flavor to cookies and desserts, plus toasted almonds and sesame. Sometimes adding just a touch of miso to a cookie batter gives it a delightful umami balance. And let’s not forget salted caramel sauce and crumbled caramelized bacon sprinkled on cookies and cakes. A miso caramel sauce is absolutely delightful, as is a caramelized onion and fig tart or a beef fat praline.