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Umami: The Delectable Fifth Taste, Comes Naturally in Fish for Sushi Scallops

Posted: Nov 14 2016

To some, the term umami may seem to be more culinary jargon. The Japanese word for “delicious taste” or “pleasant savory taste” umami was coined in 1908 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda after he discovered that monosodium glutamate, which is naturally present in some foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products, reacts with other naturally occurring chemicals in certain foods to create a distinct taste sensation.

Scallops are a perfect example of an umami food, and here’s why. Umami’s pleasant, savory taste is conveyed by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.” Most likely you’re already combining foods for the best umami flavor, such as bacon and cheese, tomato sauce and parmesan, Pan-Seared Hokkaido Scallop Risotto With Truffle Oil.

Scallops, like other seafood, have high levels of naturally occurring glutamate, nature’s flavor enhancer and the key to conveying umami taste in foods. Glutamate is also well known as one of the most common "building blocks" of protein.

Most people are familiar with four basic tastes to which the tongue is sensitive—sweet, sour, salty and bitter. While there is no English word that is synonymous with umami, the Japanese have used the term since Prof. Ikeda identified it more than 100 years ago to describe the “fifth taste.”

Scallops.Risotto

The ability to distinguish the umami taste takes practice, since it’s more subtle than other tastes. For example, a homemade chicken broth with no salt or seasoning will taste bland. If you added a small amount of monosodium glutamate to that same broth, the umami flavor provides the broth with a taste that is more like chicken than the unflavored broth. This is not as simple as making something taste more salty, as salt can do that. Rather, the umami taste is richer, fuller and more complex.

As mentioned earlier, scallops are an excellent example of food with a natural umami taste, and since they’re more than 80 percent protein, scallops are an excellent part of a healthy diet. One 3-ounce serving of scallops provides 20 grams of protein and just 95 calories. They're also a good source of both magnesium and potassium.

Most foods contain some amount of glutamate. Protein foods, such as meat, fish, cheese, milk and some vegetables are especially good sources of glutamate. Not coincidentally, these foods have a lot of umami taste.

In some foods, the amount of glutamate (and flavor) increases as they age or ripen. According to research, aged ham and cheese, for instance, have much more glutamate than their younger counterparts, as do tomatoes. As a tomato ripens from green to red, its glutamate content increases substantially. The ripe tomato’s superior flavor can be attributed, in part, to its higher, naturally occurring glutamate.

But glutamate isn’t the only key to umami.

Actual attempts to define umami, as noted earlier, began in 1908 when Professor Ikeda discovered that monosodium glutamate (MSG) was one of the main flavor components in dashi, an aqueous Japanese broth used in Japanese cuisine similar to the way that Westerners use beef stock or bouillon. The glutamate he found in dashi came from kombu, a large brown seaweed used to make dashi.

Seared.Scallops

Another key component in dashi is katsuobushi (dried bonito fish). In 1913, Shintaro Kodama, a disciple of Ikeda, found that it was the inosinate released from the katsoubushi that elevates the umami taste in dashi. In 1957, Akira Kininaka completed early umami discoveries when he determined that guarylate, a compound found in dried shiitake mushrooms, was also an umami flavor contributor. Dried shiitake mushrooms are usually used instead of katsoubushi in vegetarian versions of dashi.

Culinary experts began to realize that these three components interacted with each other in a way that elevates the umami flavor in many foods. Therefore, the key is to find ingredients that have high amounts of glutamate and either of the nucleotides found in sun-dried tomatoes or dried mushrooms.

What secured umami as a fifth basic taste right up there with sweet, salty, bitter and sour was the discovery in the year 2000 of an actual umami taste receptor in human taste buds that was dubbed taste-mGluR4. Discovering the umami taste receptor was the scientific proof needed to make umami formally recognized as an independent basic flavor.

Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste that is difficult to describe. If a flavor had to be assigned to the term umami, it would be meaty and brothy with a savoriness that triggers salivation.

Understanding the science of umami is important to truly elevating the flavors of the dishes you prepare. Scallops, tuna, salmon or any one of the superior selections from Fish-For-Sushi offer the umami experience your family and guests will love.

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