To truly understand Japanese food you need to start with taste. In the West, there were traditionally four basic tastes: sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. This was never fully accepted by the Japanese who believed that favorites such as soy sauce and dashi represent another dimension of taste.
Finally in 1908, Kikunae Ikeda (a Japanese scientist) discovered a unique reaction between the amino acid glutamate and your taste buds — a new basic taste. This new taste was named Umami.
Umami is described as a meaty or broth-like taste that lingers on the tongue. It’s present in a wide variety of Japanese ingredients and dishes.
Taste is a subjective human experience. However, umami is now generally accepted as the 5th basic taste.
Unami is a key element of Japanese cuisine. It’s arguably more important than the other basic tastes. As a result, ingredients that are high in glutamate are amongst the most common Japanese food ingredients.
Japanese ingredients with a strong umami taste include:
1. Soy Sauce
Japanese soy sauce isn’t just another condiment: it’s another dimension for your taste buds.
Dashi is a type of clear soup base with a strong umami taste. It’s common for Japanese people living abroad to name dashi as the food they miss the most. Plenty of people have put dashi into their luggage for a long trip outside Japan. Dashi is the soup base used in miso soup.
A chemical food additive (a glutamate salt) with a strong umami taste. Found in a variety of processed foods as a flavor enhancer. Increasingly common both in Japan and globally.
4. Fermented Fish Sauces
Fermented fish sauce dates back to ancient Rome. It’s an extremely common ingredient in many south east Asian countries. In Japan, fermented fish sauce isn’t particularly common. However, regional varieties such as Ishiru (a fermented sardine and squid sauce and specialty of Noto Peninsula) are well known.
5. Kombu Seaweed
An edible kelp that’s used as an ingredient in countless Japanese dishes. Several varieties of dashi are kombu based.
Dried fish (bonito) flakes used as a topping or ingredient in a variety of Japanese dishes.
7. Shiitake Mushrooms
Another important ingredient of Japanese cuisine.
8. Green Tea
Green tea is fairly high in glutamate and has a slight umami flavor.