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What is umami to you?

I am fascinated with umami. As a person who always needs to know "why" I first discoered it in my quest to figure out why I craved mushrooms. It didn't make sense to me that I would crave some random fungus, but then i learned that they are chock full of umami which probably also explains why that dash of Parmesan seems to do something even though I can't explain it or I can inhale a pint of grape tomatoes without figuring out why. While I understand the chemistry, unlike the other "Big 4" - sweet, sour, salty and bitter - it is unique in that I can't seem to describe it in words. What is umami to you? How would you describe it?

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  1. Savoriness.

    Kokuni (the 6th taste) is deliciousness.

    11 Replies
    1. re: wattacetti

      I agree with the savory feeling, I just might have to accept that I can never explain what it is about umami in words that keeps me coming back.

        1. re: fldhkybnva

          < I just might have to accept that I can never explain what it is about umami in words >

          Neither can you explain "salty" in taste or "yellow" in color to another person.

          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

            Well, yea that bothers me as well. I just thought I'd see if anyone had any interesting descriptions out of interest. For example, I often describe tonic water as "tastes like the rainbow" which works for me but I'm sure others have interesting descriptions as well.

            1. re: fldhkybnva

              <I often describe tonic water as "tastes like the rainbow" >

              No, I think you are confusing that with Skittles. :D

              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                Tthat was absolutely too funny....thanks for the laugh!!

                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                  I actually hate skittles but they do taste like the rainbow too :)

                  1. re: fldhkybnva

                    Pop your magic twanger Froggie & make us some umami

                2. re: fldhkybnva

                  When eating things with MSG it makes me salivate a little. Not drool!!

                  1. re: scubadoo97

                    I spent over 10 years trying to duplicate the fried rice that was so great at the stands and restaurants. I was following an old recipe that called for MSG. Problem solved!!!

                    Umami for me is like the German term Gemutlichkeit. Cannot be translated, but you know it when it happens.

                    1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                      OH, I'd say "gemütlich" is cozy. "Gemütlichkeit" = coziness. Of course, everyone may have some specific extra connotations attached to a word.

          2. Umami is taste with I associate with meats and seafoods.

            <unlike the other "Big 4" - sweet, sour, salty and bitter - it is unique in that I can't seem to describe it in words>

            I think umami is more subtle, but I don't think the other four are simply to describe in words.

            1. I just bought a bottle of it. " sprinkle that **** on everything." LOL

              1 Reply
              1. re: Puffin3

                Indeed, along with my favorite Franks' Hot Sauce which I do put on everything :)

              2. To me umami is ___, if not exactly like ___. It tastes just like ___. Yum.

                1. I have opined on the notion over the years, for example, here are some old ramblings of mine:

                  Ultimately, however, I think of Umami as the bottom notes. Charles Mingus, Phil Lesh, or Berry Oakley - somethin' that just rounds it out, settles it down, and enhances everything else that is there to shine.

                  1. This is probably the Tate I crave most often.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: melpy

                      You crave a British Art Museum?

                    2. In Vietnamese, the word for umami is the same for sweet. MSG translates to "sweet powder". The context, however, provides the distinction. One might remark how "sweet" an oyster or a good broth is.

                      So to me, umami is the subtle "sweetness brought by proteins" that, like some have mentioned, rounds out the flavors and fills out the whole flavor profile. This may counter the vegetarian seaweed source in which it was originally identified. However, in Vietnam, seaweed is more often used in a sweet dessert rather than in savory applications and, as far as I'm familiar, never used in a broth.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: seamunky

                        In English, we seem to drive "umami" toward salty. Isn't "umami" just a fancy word for savory? From the description of the umami jackpot (chicken with mushrooms), to be the word that comes to mind is really savory. Besides, the Spanish word for savory is "salado"--again the connection with saltiness, as salado means salty, and the word savory is pretty much translated as such.

                      2. To me, it is a "fullness" or "roundness" taste.
                        Dishes that are kind of flat, kind of blah, really wake up when high-umami ingredients are added.
                        It's the I-definitely-want-a-second-helping flavor component.

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: racer x

                          A few days ago I had roast chicken and sauteed mushrooms and I must say I felt like I hit the umami jackpot. The simple mushroom with it's load of glutamate really rounded out the dish to make it a flavor :) The more I learn, it seems many of my dishes are taking on a deliciousness of Unami with careful but simple pairings. I have to say it's my favorite taste...someone else can have the cake!

                          1. re: fldhkybnva


                            This is fascinating to me. I must admit that the term "umami" is one I've heard only in the last year or so. While people say that "sweet, sour, salty, bitter" also cannot be described, it's not the same. Everyone knows many, many agreed upon foods or dishes that are salty or sweet, etc. if you say something is "bitter" people know exactly what you are talking about. (If they didn't you could always have them bite into an olive on a tree!) But, some foods which are especially delicious to me leave me unable to say why. A depth of taste in a soup comes to mind. I might or might not be able to improve a weak beef stock with salt, sugar, lemon or
                            some rind, but it's almost always improved with a little tomato paste. Tomatoes, cheese and pork are known to have umami, also mushrooms, shellfish, carrots and green tea! I just learned that chicken bones do too. They are all high in glutamate I think. I'd love to know what foods most people consider to have umami. Great thread.

                              1. re: fldhkybnva

                                That was a great link! I now know why I love tomatoes, potatoes, ham, sardines, Parmasean, soy sauce and shellfish. Man Parmasean is loaded!! I love sautéed mushrooms, but haven't eaten Shitakes much and those are the ones listed as really high in umami.
                                It also talks about how pairings are known to create big "umaminess."
                                I love knowing why, and for that reason enjoy the geekiness of Cooks Illustrated. :-D

                                1. re: ItalianNana

                                  Yea, I couldn't figure out why I loved mushrooms until I read more about umami. Perhaps thats not the explanation but I can eat a lb of them and never look back they are just so good.

                                  1. re: fldhkybnva

                                    Now I'm wondering about sauerkraut and olives!

                                  2. re: ItalianNana

                                    Yes, I have been pondering a subscription do you enjoy it or is this more the online information?

                                    1. re: fldhkybnva

                                      Very much. I have my magazine subscription because I like to read cover to cover and have as reference. I also have the o line subscription because I like to cook for family when I'm visiting and I can log in anywhere. And you can access more information with the online subscription.

                                2. re: ItalianNana

                                  For myself personally, I associate it most definitely and often with mushrooms, tomatoes and parmesan.

                            1. It's what a baby asks of the first woman it sees.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: blackpippi


                                LOL good one! And if that babe is fortunate enough to get its first food from "mami's" breast, it's high in...you guessed it UMAMI!