On Umami

This week, The New Yorker published an exceptionally irritating article under the condescending title ‘You Think You Know Umami.’ Which is funny, because neither the author nor most of her interview subjects seem to ‘know’ umami very well at all. She begins:

Ask someone who thinks that they know what umami is, and she’ll tell you it’s the “fifth taste,” after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. It’s that other thing, the thing you didn’t even know needed a concept or a name until someone pointed it out. That deep, dark, meaty intensity that distinguishes seared beef, soy sauce, ripe tomato, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, and mushrooms, among other things. It hits the back of your throat and leaves you craving more.

This response would actually be a relatively articulate and accurate description of what umami is. In fact, unless you want to get into the history and science of it, I think it’s a very satisfactory definition. If the genuine goal of the author is to help the reader understand umami, the article could have ended there. But it doesn’t. It goes on and on, piling heaps of misleading, politicised, and pseudoscientific bullshit onto something that is really quite basic.

Let me stress this word: basic. Umami is a basic taste. It is, if you want to get technical, not even a flavor, since flavors comprise of aromas as well. Think of sugar – plain, white, boring sugar. It is basic sweetness. It doesn’t smell of anything. It doesn’t actually taste very good by itself. But it is a building block, to be combined and balanced with other tastes and flavors to create delicious food. Umami is the same: pretty useless by itself, but very important as part of the ensemble cast that performs on our palates and in our olfactory glands to create complex flavors that we can perceive and appreciate.

We should probably recap the basic tastes before we go any further. This article describes umami as the ‘fifth’ taste, as most people do (including me), though this is only because it was confirmed scientifically after four others had been: salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. From a chemical or purely sensory perspective, it isn’t any newer than the others. It’s hard-wired into our palates, and has been since the dawn of humanity. Maybe even longer. Furthermore, there aren’t only five basic tastes. We’ve just been really slow to recognise and pinpoint them chemically. Scientists now understand that ‘pungent’ and ‘metallic’ are also basic tastes, and some argue that there are actually multiple basic tastes that all get lumped together as ‘bitter.’ So there could be as many as nine basic tastes, possibly more. (Oh, and while we’re at it: that ‘taste map’ of the tongue? It’s been discredited for years.)

Anyway, at this point there is no debate that umami is basic, and this is partly why it is so hard to describe. How on earth would you describe ‘sourness’ to someone who had never heard such a word? You’d have to do it by referencing sour things: lemons, vinegar, and pickles, perhaps. But this can lead to even more confusion. If you use ‘lemon-like’ as a proxy for ‘sour,’ then the uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking that ‘sour’ means ‘citrus-y.’

Bill Watterson © 1996

Bill Watterson © 1996

We are encumbered by a surprisingly limited vocabulary for describing tastes and flavors, which has a tendency to complicate matters. Since we’re always describing umami in terms of other things – like the ‘ripe tomato,’ ‘Parmesan cheese’ and ‘anchovies’ above – things that actually taste nothing alike – it’s easy to see why the actual meaning of umami gets lost in translation. I often wish that we hadn’t adopted the Japanese word into English, because it needlessly obfuscates the meaning behind it. Everybody can understand ‘savoriness’ on an intuitive level, but umami? Nope. That will require some Googling.

The author plays up umami’s supposed Japaneseness – contrasted with a ‘distinctly American’ approach to umami – even as she references ingredients that point to its universality (there’s that Parmesan again). Here’s something else I must stress: umami is not Japanese. It is a Japanese word, yes, because a Japanese scientist discovered it, and I guess that’s just how these things work. But as a basic taste, umami is a human thing, not a Japanese thing. Yet the author and her interviewees still express an awed reverence for some perceived Japanese mastery of umami, which strikes me as orientalist and just plain weird. According to Adam Fleischman, founder of the Umami Burger chain, the Japanese

define umami as an over-all harmonious state of perfection where the ingredients come together, a really rounded and harmonious dish. They have a sort of zen way of looking at it.

Even if we ignore the invocation of Zen – an extremely austere and intensive school of Buddhism, not known for its holistic perspectives on cuisine – this a very silly, wrong thing to say. And I’ve heard many, many chefs and food writers say similarly silly, wrong things, which can be summarised as ‘umami isn’t a basic taste, it’s a perfectly balanced combination of other tastes.’ This is as wrong as saying that salty is the combination of sweet and sour. It is as wrong as saying that bitterness is an ‘over-all bad-feeling frowny-face flavor.’ It is as wrong as saying that 1 + 1 = 4. It is categorically, decidedly, unquestionably wrong. It is a vortex of wrongness, dark and deep and swirling, leading into a wormhole of infinite stupidity. Do I have to say it again? UMAMI IS A BASIC FUCKING TASTE.

It gets worse. The author interviews Kazu Katoh, the president of the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad, whose perspective on umami in Japan is even more mystical than Fleischman’s:

He acknowledged that it exists around the world: in the tomatoes and Parmesan cheese of Italy, for example, and in the miso, soy sauce, sake, and vinegar of Korea and China. The difference, according to Katoh, is rooted in geography. Japanese umami starts with Japanese terroir: “The temperature, and the moisture in the air. Vegetable growing, water. The dirt, the earth—it’s all important.” Then there’s technique: “The brewing and aging processes involved.” In French cooking, he said, “it’s all about adding. It’s about adding sauces, cooking it in bouillon, using oil, pouring more dressing on it. Japanese cooking is very, very simple. It’s about extracting.”

When I asked him to describe what umami tastes like, he grew philosophical. “It’s something that’s kind to the body,” he said. “It’s mild, and, after eating, it’s not heavy on your stomach. It helps you wake up better in the morning. That’s what deliciousness is about. It’s about feeling good after eating.” The most balanced meals, he said, have the same level of saltiness as exists naturally in our bodies, and umami in other countries can be too heavy on the stomach. “In Japan, we talk about it tasting good, sleeping well, and clean bowel movements. It has to do with the entire digestive process.”

This is just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. It clearly serves a Japanese gastro-nationalist agenda, not a lucid, honest explanation of umami. I can’t believe the author would include such obvious claptrap in her article without an immediate rebuttal. Clean bowel movements are something I’m sure we can all get behind, but ‘umami in other countries can be too heavy on the stomach’?! Please.

All of these perspectives, by the way, might be interesting if they were framed not as truths, but merely as the rhetoric of self-serving discourse that has needlessly complicated umami. It’s become a loaded term, in a way none of the other basic tastes have. It really is simple, but articles like this and the subjects it features make it far more confusing than it should be.

The author concludes with a series of proclamations that are meant to sound profound, but are mostly just errors or unnecessary embellishments:

As popular understanding of the concept discovered just over a hundred years ago continues to evolve, umami is more than the sum of its glutamates.

No it isn’t. It is exactly the sum of its glutamates. Or if you want to be really accurate, it is the sum of its glutamates, inosinates, and guanylates.

It is a cultural cipher,

I’m not entirely sure what this means, but even so: nope.

a malleable, claimable standard of identity, innovation, and taste.

I think you meant: a chemically predetermined and cultureless basic taste.

Umami is a badge of pride,

Maybe, if that’s what you’re going for?

once Japanese,

Nope – again, they just called firsties.

now universal.

YES! You got one right. Well done.

A state of mind.



Yes. Almost.


2 thoughts on “On Umami

  1. Kavey says:

    Dear God, you wouldn’t think it would be that complicated! I usually use savouriness to describe it too, and people are pretty quick to understand it, though that’s because I’m usually talking to people with a shared experience of foods and drinks — you are right that it’s hard to describe any of the basic tastes without recourse to a list of examples of those tastes. I sometimes wonder how we’d discuss any of the basic tastes with, say an undiscovered tribe from some isolated spot on earth who haven’t therefore tried any of the foods we usually list (ignoring for the moment the fact that we have some kind of universal translator a la Star Trek that allows us to converse at all). The drivel by Kazu Katoh is a particularly fine example of utter total gibberish. I mean total bollocks.

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