Because umami is hard to define, we enlisted the help of Ole G. Mouritsen, Ph.D., DSc, professor of gastrophysics and culinary food innovation and author of Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste.
“Umami is a basic taste (along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). Its peculiar characteristic is that it is long-lingering, mouth-filling, and leads to both appetite and satiety,” he says. “It is prominent in fermented food (soy sauce, miso, fish sauce, mature cheeses), cured ham, and a range of marine products (fish, shellfish, cephalopods, certain seaweeds).”
Umami was originally “discovered” in 1908 when chemist and food lover Kikunae Ikeda finally put a name to it (even though the flavor had already been part of our palate forever), according to BBC. However, it wasn’t until 1990 that it was officially recognized as the fifth taste.
The umami taste mostly comes from an amino acid called glutamate, but two other compounds—inosinate and guanylate—also impart the flavor. Typically, these compounds are found in protein-rich foods (amino acids come from proteins). When you eat foods with umami, these compounds bind with receptors in your mouth and your gastrointestinal tract and send signals to your brain that help you pick up on the flavor.
Interestingly, when umami hits these receptors, it also makes your mouth water and triggers your stomach to increase its production of stomach acid, which helps you digest the proteins in the food you’re eating.