FAQ 23: What is umami?

FAQ 23: What is umami?

Posted by Kylie Suich

At the Chocolate Tasting Adventure this past Saturday, a couple of us started talking about how some of the chocolates on taste were similar in taste to particular desserts. The Jala Jala Treats Wattleseed dark chocolate reminded a guest of Anzac Biscuits, due to the caramel nutty taste they both have.

Then we somehow got to talking about umami. But what is it? And why is it important to how we taste food and in particular chocolate?

A strict definition describes umami as a category of taste in food, the fifth one alongside sweet, sour, salt and bitter. In Japanese, it means 'essence of deliciousness' and umami as a taste is often explained as meaty savoury deliciousness that deepens the flavour of what you are eating.

Scientists identified umami taste receptors on the human tongue in 2002, however umami was first identified by Japanese scientist Dr Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. While enjoying a bowl of boiled tofu in kombu dashi (kelp broth), he noticed the savory flavor was different from the four basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.

Dr Ikeda named this taste 'umami' and eventually was able to attribute it to glutamate. By 1909 his research led him to mixing glutamate with sodium which is an easy seasoning to use, inventing monosodium glutamate. 

Glutamate is an amino acid that is one of the building blocks of protein. It occurs naturally in our bodies and in many diverse types of foods such as cured meats, aged cheeses tomatoes, mushrooms, salmon, steak, anchovies , seaweeds and even green tea. 

Umami influences how we taste food in three different ways:

  • the umami taste spreads across your tongue as you eat food
  • it lasts longer than the sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes
  • it provides a mouthwatering sensation
  • overall umani rounds out the flavours in any dish.


Alg Seaweed Raspberry & Rainbow Dark Chocolate available through The Dessert Plate


So how does it influence tasting chocolate and other desserts?  If you are enjoying a dessert that intentionally has ingredients accentuating all five taste senses, then you need to slow down and savour the complexity of that taste.  In particular a chocolate with ingredients touching all five tastes will slowly reveal its charms, take a few small bites and slowly enjoy them so you don't miss any of the subtle high or low notes in the treat.

One of the chocolates I love that fits this approach is the Alg Seaweed Dark Chocolate. With 63% cacao solids, it is a bean to bar vegan chocolate made using organic beans from Panama and the Dominican Republic. It has freeze dried raspberries adding a punch of sweetness and rainbow seaweed added for the umami taste, which together counter a bittersweet dark chocolate.

Of course research has been done on how you can pair a food type naturally high in umami with other ingredients to accentuate the overall flavour.  Dessert suggestions primarily focus on chocolate and vegetables, think using Beetroot in Chocolate Brownies to add a delicious earthy flavour and natural moistness. 

Or some of the American Thanksgiving dessert dishes, such as the very sweet Pumpkin Pies made with condensed milk and then served with a caramelised or salty sauce and often a rich dark chocolate topping as well.

And Balsamic Vinegar is a definite umami flavour.  It has a sweeter flavour profile and pairs really well with strawberries, peaches, figs, cherries, blueberries and chocolate!  The Monsieur Truffe Limited Edition release from Summer 2022 pairs strawberries, beetroot, muntries and balsamic vinegar together in a 72% dark chocolate.   A perfect example of a complex flavour balance that needs to be savoured. 

If you like more complex flavours, order yourself a Hands Off. It's Mine! Chocolate Tasting Box.   Then leave me a comment at the check out about being inspired by this blog to try something very different.  I'll curate your order to suit, Kylie

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