In Thailand it’s fish sauce. In Japan it’s miso and soy sauce. In Italy it’s Parmigiano-Reggiano. In Spain it’s cured meats. In Australia it’s vegemite. In the U.S. it’s ketchup (and Doritos, as in the Doritos Locos Taco, which was one of the most successful fast food introductions in history). In Korea it’s kimchi.
It’s umami. And lately chefs can’t seem to get enough of it.
Often called “the fifth taste,” umami isn’t easy to describe. Even the Umami Information Center — a non-profit dedicated to promoting umami – says “most people don’t recognize umami when they encounter it.” The Japanese word roughly translates to a “pleasant savory taste.” It’s a filling, savory, “meaty” sensation one tastes in foods rich in glutamate.
Umami isn’t new, either; the flavor itself naturally occurs in foods like meat and mushrooms. Even the concept of umami is over a century old, identified by a Tokyo professor named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. And chefs have been amping up dishes with rich ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar — even chicken stock — for years.
But the idea of a “fifth taste” wasn’t widely accepted until 2000, when scientists finally identified glutamate receptors on the tongue. Since then the focus on umami has reached a fever pitch, with chefs looking to ingredients from Asia, like furikake, togarishi, and fish sauce to amp up their dishes. At New York’s Megu, an umami sushi menu is designed to build the umami flavor through a nine-course tasting dinner, while Houston’s Kata Robata regularly hosts collaborative umami-focused dinners. Now, instead of simply building flavors through umami behind-the-scenes, chefs are marketing umami directly to customers.
And while the concept of umami has often been associated with Asian ingredients, innovative operators are taking those ingredients in new directions; on today’s menus you’ll find bonito flakes on spaghetti and asparagus with a side of MSG-rich Kewpie mayonnaise. At Solo Farm & Table, in Vermont, the pickles and bread are served with bonito butter, while Chicago’s Allium has a miso butterscotch milkshake on the dessert menu. Meanwhile, Italian operators have been looking to their own cuisine for umami inspiration, adding bottarga (cured fish roe) and colatura (an anchovy-derived fish sauce) to dishes, while fine dining restaurants are fermenting their own kimchis, curing their own meats, and barrel-aging their own sauces. Chef David Chang’s Momofuku Culinary Lab is busy creating umami-rich foods inspired by Japan but using ingredients from New York, like a miso-like sunflower seed “hozon” and soy sauce-inspired farro “bonji.” “They taste like New York,” he told an audience at Harvard.
You can even find it on supermarket shelves. London restaurateur and author Laura Santini’s Taste No. 5 Umami Paste is now widely available at retail, which packs parmesan, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, anchovies, black olives, porcini, and balsamic vinegar into each tube. For many, umami-rich ingredients are an easy way to add flavor without adding sodium and calories. British Airways worked with chef Heston Blumenthal to create umami-laden dishes that would still taste flavorful at high altitudes (passengers lose about 30% of their tasting ability in the air, according to the airline).
And some operators put it right in the name — Umami Sushi in Chicago, Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar in Wisconsin, Umami Global Bistro in Maryland. And, of course, there is Umami Burger in New York, where people wait three hours for a taste.
Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman created his namesake dish by mixing every umami-heavy ingredient he could find in a blender, eventually creating the Umami Sauce and Umami Dust featured in each Umami Burger (both bottled for purchase now), which is topped with shiitake mushrooms, slow-cooked tomatoes and a parmesan cheese crisp. This month Fleishman is set to open ChocoChicken, a “whole new style of fried chicken” that has the same umami-rich “crack factor” he looks for in a brand, he told Today.
It’s an opportunity that other operators and producers may start to embrace. According to Datassential’s recent TIPS report, a quarterly report that tracks trends along the Menu Adoption Cycle, only 6% of restaurant operators we surveyed were currently harnessing umami on their menu, though 44% of consumers are likely to try umami-rich foods at a restaurant (and over half of millennials).