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You probably eat umami all the time: It's that meaty, savory, brothlike, full-flavor taste we get from things like Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and red wine. Generally speaking, the more "mature" a food is (say, a Parmesan cheese versus a "younger" cheese like mozzarella), the more umami flavor it will have.
Conventional wisdom used to tell us that there were only four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Now, in the last decade, umami has been established as the "fifth" basic taste, and is gaining in popularity and influence.
The name umami was coined in Japan a century ago, when the taste (found in Eastern staples like seaweed) was first identified as unique.
So what is the difference between taste and flavor? Well, try this quick test with a flavored jelly bean. Put one in your mouth and chew it while holding your nose. You may taste a sweet sensation, but that's it. Then, release your nose. When you do, the fullness of the jelly bean flavor will come rushing through, whether it be bubble-gum or lemon drop. This is because our olfactory senses are necessary for completing many of the flavors we experience. That's not the case with the basic tastes, which are detected solely by the tongue.
The tongue has 10,000 taste buds, each containing specific cells that are designed to be receptors for the sensations of sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami. The Western "umami" breakthrough came in 2000, when researchers at the University of Miami discovered a specific receptor designed to recognize glutamate, one of the principal amino acids that give off the umami taste.
David Kasabian, author of "Umami: Cooking with the Fifth Taste," says understanding umami can be helpful in a number of ways. "The truth of the matter is foods that have umami we find to be very delicious and very satisfying. Foods that don't have umami we tend to find very insipid and very thin and not very satisfying. And as a result we eat more food. So, umami-rich food creates satisfaction.
"Also, umami makes salt taste saltier. So, if you want to reduce the amount of sodium that's in your diet, you make sure you have a lot of umami in your food and you don't have to salt it as much. Finally, umami creates a sensation that chefs call mouth-feel. We tend to think of mouth-feel as the sensation we get from eating fat. So, again, we can reduce the amount of fat that's in our food by making sure that we've got enough umami in that food."