I really dislike it when people use unfamiliar words for something, rather than trying to use a familiar word that has more intuitive meaning. (Although worse is business jargon, where a familiar word is used in a completely unfamiliar way: case in point, almost every word used in the “Agile” business process.)
This is how Merriam-Webster defines umami:
the taste sensation that is produced by several amino acids and nucleotides (such as glutamate and aspartate) and has a rich or meaty flavor characteristic of cheese, cooked meat, mushrooms, soy, and ripe tomatoes : savory entry 2 sense 2
Wonderful. Except that I’ve never thought tomatoes taste meaty in any way whatsoever. I’ve heard people describe them that way, and that description has, to me, been nonsensical. The same goes for cheese. I’ve never once tasted any kind of cheese that I’d describe as “meaty” or have a flavour that I’d in any other way associate with meat.
Perhaps I might consider some mushrooms to taste meaty—but not really. At best, I might think some mushrooms cooked the right way can share a vaguely similar texture to meat. And a dish made the right way with mushrooms rather than meat could taste similar to the same dish where meat was used.
People also use the word earthy. But while I can associate earthy with mushrooms, I can never associate the word with tomatoes or meat.
In short, there is no single flavour in my personal experience that I think tomatoes, mushrooms, and meat all have in common.
I’ve heard other people say there are five different generic flavours: bitter, salty, sweet, sour—and umami. I understand the first four. But to then say that umami is a generic flavour that is not one of the other four does nothing for my understanding. That’s like telling me the colour blah is the colour that is not one of the colours described by any of the other colour words. Defining something to me as being the negation of everything else I have experience with is futile.
Over the years I’ve occasionally looked up definitions of umami. I’m pretty sure I’ve already captured the various ways of describing it. Oh, wait. There’s one more. Some people say “if you’ve ever tasted MSG, you know what umami tastes like.” I’ve never personally tasted pure MSG. I’ll admit it’s conceivable that if I ever did, I’d say to myself, “Well, how about that! When I taste it, I taste something that’s common to mushrooms, tomatoes, and meat.” But I really, really doubt it. As I’ve already said, for me personally, those three foods have nothing in common.
I’m beginning to think this is more like different people’s reactions to cilantro. While some people simply have a personal preference against the flavour, a minority have taste receptors that allow them to taste cilantro’s soapy-tasting aldehydes. Most people don’t have these receptors, and they think there’s nothing soapy about cilantro. But if you do have the receptors, you won’t like the taste of cilantro. (Unless, I suppose, you’re somebody who likes the taste of soap. I’ve never heard of anybody liking soap, but I guess it’s possible.)
Going back to umami. As I understand it, the word is originally Japanese, and it translates loosely to savoury in English. Except that while something having an umami taste might be considered to have a savoury taste, I believe something that has a savoury taste doesn’t always have an umami taste. So, the two things are not, strictly speaking, identical.
Do I know what savoury means? Traditionally, discussion of umami aside, I’ve always understood it to simply be something that is not sweet. In other words, a savoury dish is a main course rather than dessert. However, it’s possible that a savoury flavour is something different. (Some people serve cheese for dessert. But even if served for dessert, it wouldn’t normally be described as sweet.) And here we run into more difficulty. Merriam-Webster has two relevant senses of savoury.
having a spicy or salty quality without sweetness
(Don’t ask me to explain what flavour spicy is … According to the “bitter, salty, sweet, and sour” categories it doesn’t exist. Although, without having looked at those four categories in the context of the fifth flavour of umami, I would have said that spicy was a fifth flavour—making umami actually sixth?)
being, inducing, or marked by the rich or meaty taste sensation of umami
And now we’re getting into circular definitions.
I can understand that meats have a “meaty” flavour. (That seems comedically self-evident.) And I can understand that mushrooms have an “earthy” flavour. (I suppose there’s some kind of association between the word and where the food grows—not that I would describe most other food from the ground as earthy.) But as I said before, meat does not taste earthy to me, nor do mushrooms taste meaty. And a tomato is as far away from meaty or earthy as I can personally get. (I’d probably describe tomatoes as tangy or even tart, but I don’t want to get started on that tangent.)
A different word associated with umami, and used in the second definition of savoury that I provided, is rich. But while I use that word to describe foods that are filling, I also use the word to describe foods that are sweet—something that people who describe umami clearly say it is not. What does Meriam-Webster say about the food-related sense of rich?
highly seasoned, fatty, oily, or sweet
That’s not helpful. At least not in the context of trying to pin down umami. Unless those people referring to umami are really saying that it has a fatty or oily taste. But I can’t see that either.
Relating this back to cilantro and taste receptors, the person who came up with the food-related sense of umami identified taste receptors for the—now 5—different classifications of flavours. (Although this still doesn’t help me understand what receptors identify spicy food.) All of this leaves me to wonder if I, personally, simply do not have normal umami taste receptors. If there’s a flavour that’s common to meat, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and also described as the flavour of MSG, then my best guess is that my failure to understand all of the discussion by different people is that I don’t taste it. Whatever is being described as umami is something I just don’t taste. (Or else I do taste it, but I simply fail to comprehend their attempts to describe it. Which means that either I’m unusually unintelligent, or they’re all unusually inarticulate. However, I find that the least likely explanation.)
The only way I can relate to the flavour of umami is to tell myself that it describes something that tastes meaty or earthy. Those two flavours (at least the English words) I understand. The problem is that meaty and earthy taste different to me. So, just saying something has an umami flavour isn’t a precise enough description where I’m concerned. In the end, I’d rather nobody ever told me that something has an umami flavour. Instead, I’d prefer they use a word that’s more understandable. And—I’ll say it—use a word that’s less pretentious and elitist. Because even if that’s not the intention, it’s one of those words that not only causes confusion in its everyday English use, but belongs to an exclusionary club. Just as Agile terminology belongs to the business-jargon club, the English use of umami more realistically belongs to the food-science-jargon club.