Umami Explained

It was long thought that the human tongue can only sense four flavors: sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. Recently, however, western science is catching up to Eastern intuition in identifying a fifth bona fide flavor: umami.

Unfortunately, umami does not have a simple English translation. It is best described as that aspect of a yummy food or drink that makes you say, “Mm, that’s good. I think I’ll have a bit more of that!” Some examples from the plethora of words that close in on the meaning of umami include: deliciousness, richness, fullness of flavor, meatiness, savory, well-rounded… you get the picture.

Umami has been found to be caused by several substances, including the amino acid glutamate, and its chemical salt form monosodium glutamate, the much-maligned MSG. Although a small percentage of the population is allergic to MSG, it has over the past few years been considered safe for almost everyone. When present in its “free” form, i.e. not bound to other amino acids, glutamate exudes umami.

Sake is often described as having umami, or not having umami. Not surprisingly, it is often linked to amino acid content (which is sometimes listed on the bottle). However, one cannot simply say “the more umami the better.” It is very much a matter or preference.

Dry, light sake often has little umami at all, and is indeed prized for just that quality. Other styles of sake have that rich, meaty quality that umami describes, and are in demand for that. Tasting a wide range of sake help determine your own preferences.

Although it is not what everyone wants, too little umami in any sake will make it taste thin and weary. Yet, too much umami can often correlate to “zatsumi” (off-flavors), or a rough and noisy flavor profile. As in all things sake, balance is best. Other factors, like sweet/dry and acidity, must be taken into account to strike that balance.

Much cheap, mass produced sake, with its gads of added distilled alcohol, is low on umami. Fine, top-grade ginjo-shu sake may not be considered, upon sipping, to have much umami, as it would cloy the deeper recesses of flavor and elegant fragrances it was brewed to exude. But nor would it be considered lacking in umami.

What it comes down to is that sturdier stratums of sake, like typical junmai-shu, are more often where good, solid umami-laden sake can be found. But there is so much overlap between the various grades of sake that these guidelines are all generalizations that cannot hold a candle to tasting experience.

If you’d like to learn more, perhaps you would find the Sake Notebook useful. This 14 page .pdf  resource lays out the basics of sake in an easily digestible, very practical format that includes a list of 250 recommendable sake, and provides enough education on all things sake to fuel your study, appreciation and enjoyment of sake for years to come.

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4 Comments on “Umami Explained”

  1. Thought and talked about the possible existence of ‘umami’ for ages, but still can’t commit it to words.

    Absolutely stoked to hear that I wasn’t out of my mind! And I’m very enthused to learn a few new ways to describe this wackily-unquantifiable nihonshu quality.

    I know that it mostly depends on individual preference, but do you have any recommendations for nihonshu that have ‘umami’?

  2. A great introduction to the arcane subject of umami.

    Two thoughts:
    1) The English word that comes closest to describing umami is probably ‘savor’ — ie to have a ‘savory-ness’. It sounds old-fashioned but that’s probably a good thing, since it doesn’t have layers of other meanings/associations.

    2) The relationship between MSG and ‘umami’ is equivalent to that between HFCS and ‘sweetness’. There’s an interesting article on the latter in Slate:

    all the best!

  3. […] soy sauce (you can also use low-sodium soy sauce, which I’ve done, but Tamari ups the “umami” factor) – stock 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter – stock 6 Tablespoons all-purpose […]

  4. Jessica Furui Says:

    Most if not all yamahai and kimoto sakes will have a good presence of umami. Look for these styles and experiment. I also love Kamoizumi “Shusen” Junmai Ginjo, drink nurukan with kushiyaki or braised meats. Yum!! Umeneshiki Daiginjo, Taiheizan Tenko, Masumi Nanago, Tensei Junmai, Shichi hon Yari sakes.

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