Feeding People

by Morris Lemire

The English language steals words like a nine-year-old snack thief steals sweets. Umami is such a word. We swiped it from the Japanese, it’s their word for the role glutamic acid plays in the experience of flavour. The closest word in English for umami is savouriness.

Long before we even had a word for it, let alone the science, the key to good flavour was finding balance. For years the classic four acid, sweet, bitter and salt were the basic set. Now, following the recent discovery of an actual taste receptor on the tongue for umami, it officially became the fifth taste. Call it what you may, it’s here to stay.

In 1866, German scientist Dr. Karl H.L. Ritthausen, identified glutamic acid, the most abundant amino acid, in his studies on wheat. But it was the Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated glutamic acid in 1908, linking it to savouriness, i.e. umami. Two other amino acids have since been added to the umami list, inosinate, found in fish and meat, and guanylate, found in mushrooms.

One way to understand the taste/flavour character of umami is discovering that umami-rich ingredients have a synergistic effect on flavour, which enhances the wow factor — as the umami information center puts it: “1+1=8.” (umamiinfo.com). When combined with other ingredients, these little gems kick-up the flavour of your dishes, letting you reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar in a recipe without sacrificing taste or flavour.

Umami is a team player helping the other ingredients make a unified whole without smothering their individual contribution. The taste of umami can be subtle and a bit elusive at first. I recognize it better in a dish, where its total affect on flavour is showcased. Often I will add miso, for example, and never actually taste the miso itself. The effect of adding salt to a dish is immediate, which is why it is added incrementally. Umami, well, not so much.

When using ingredients high in umami always remember the other tastes. For example, umami-rich soy sauce, miso, and anchovies, are also generously salty. So you may wish to add these ingredients before salting your dish. You can train your palate to taste salt at a lower threshold, which in turn will increase your perception of flavour across the whole spectrum. I am not saying cut it out, but lowering your salt threshold, combined with glutamate’s ability to reduce our dependence on salt, is reason enough to jump on the fifth taste bandwagon.

Just as umami became better known, a taste receptor for fat, the sixth taste, burst on the scene. Neither discovery was a surprise, more like a confirmation of many cooks’ experience. But the discovery of an actual physical taste receptor raised some interesting issues in the culinary world and made it very hard to be dismissive.

Some of the fuss is this. Taste receptors for savouriness are on the tongue, just where you would expect them to be. But they have also been found in the stomach. So our bellies taste things? Well, sort of. Taste receptors in the human stomach send messages to the brain via the vagus nerve telling the body to prepare for digestion. They also tell us when we are full, satiated, as nutritionists say. The better your diet, the more umami-rich amino acids engaged in eating, the sooner the taste receptors in the stomach signal the brain that all is well and the brain tells us to put the fork down.

Here is a short list of common umami-rich items you can use every day.


A fermented and aged soybean product used to enrich soups, stews, marinades, salad dressings, sauces and gravies. In Japan, Korea and China, where it is also called soybean paste, there are dozens of types, many of them still lovingly made at home. In the West there are three primary kinds categorized as light, medium and dark. Light miso is made with white rice and soybeans, medium with brown rice and dark is often made with barley. They vary in richness, saltiness and flavour, but the rule of thumb is to mix light with a light dish, say eggs, and the heavy dark ones with things like baked beans. Miso is versatile and highly nutritious, being high in B vitamins and probiotics.

Vine-ripened Tomatoes

In-season, ripe local fruit and vegetables. Umami increases with ripeness. While fresh is best, canned will do. In the dead of winter look for canned Italian D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes. They are low in salt, sweet and ripe. Tomato paste in a tube is also a very good concentrated source of flavour and once opened keeps well.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is very high in glutamates. A little goes a long way to increase favour of a dish. You can even use the rind in tomato sauces, soups and stews to increase savouriness.

Extra-virgin olive oil

A taste receptor for fat, taste receptor CD36, has been identified on the human tongue. Surprised? Probably not. This bit of science cemented our love affair with butter, bacon, duck fat, olive oil — it’s a long list — all rich in the fifth taste. Fat carries the flavour in meat, as well as many other dishes. Clearly, something between fat and umami are at play. Oils, like beer, are highly susceptible to light and oxygen, so buy in small dark bottles and store in dark cupboards.


When I was a kid my mom would make mushrooms on toast. Yep! You guessed it, Campbell’s canned soup on toast. I loved it. Dried shiitake mushrooms are rich in flavour, keep very well and can be used in many ways.


One of the seaweeds, vegetables of the sea, that the Japanese use in stocks and broths and sushi. It is primarily used in aashi stock, an essential base for many Japanese dishes. Kombu can be infused for mere minutes in water, soaked over-night, or added to soups and stews and stir-fries. They are packaged dried and keep forever.

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce undergoes a long and elaborate fermentation, then is pasteurized for long keeping. A splash of soy sauce works well in a marinade, or glaze for BBQ pork chops or salmon.


Stock is fundamental to home cooking. Make your own with local organic chicken backs. Some of the seaweeds, kombu in particular, also make excellent stock. I freeze some in a range of sizes, including ice-cube trays, for ease of thawing and cooking flexibility. Of course stock can be purchased ready-to-go, but these are usually over salted, bland and made with unidentified by-product. When something is so easy to make, with such superior results, why bother buying something that tastes inferior.

Other Foods High in Umami

  • Anchovy paste
  • Vegemite (yeast extract)
  • Brewers yeast
  • Fermented fish sauce or pastes
  • Dried Bonito flakes
  • Kimchi
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Pesto from basil, kale, cilantro and lovage

Good food, good health, and happy cooking!

Morris Lemire loves a dish called Basque mushrooms on toast, made with butter, hot chilies and sherry, lots of umami.