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By Ir. Hendra Utama, MM. (LPPOM MUI Senior Auditor)

Umami is one of the five basic tastes besides sweet, bitter, salty, and sour. This term comes from Japanese, which means savoury or delicious. The term umami itself was introduced by Professor Kikunae Ikeda, which comes from the root words umami meaning “delicious”, and mi meaning “taste”.

Elemental Taste Journey: Seven-Four-Five

There have been times—even centuries—the Western world has identified and believed in seven basic tastes. The tastes are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent (between sour and bitter tastes which give a dry effect in the mouth), pungent (spicy/sharp taste and smell, for example, the taste of spices), and harsh (rough/hard). The concept of the seven basic tastes is based on the views of the ancient Greeks, who came from the opinion of Aristotle.

In the 20th century, the Western world began identifying only four original basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The remaining three are mechanical and chemical effects due to the breakdown/damage of food cells when chewed and processed in the oral cavity.

Western countries started to believe in these four basic tastes. Meanwhile, several Asian countries still included spicy flavours derived from spices. One example is the chilli flavour as one of the primary flavours. Based on its culinary philosophy, India also believes in astringent as another basic taste. The belief that we know has been abandoned by the Western world since the 20th century.

On the other hand, the Japanese and Chinese identified the basic tastes associated with good food thousands of years before. Then, since 1909, the term umami appeared in Japan—as mentioned at the beginning of this article—came from Kikunae Ikeda, the chemist who identified the umami that gives rise to the savoury taste.

Umami is a taste derived from the amino acid L-glutamate and 5′-ribonucleotides—for example, guanosine monophosphate (GMP) and inosine monophosphate (IMP). It took scientists a long time to believe in and accept umami as a basic taste. Until one day in 1985, at a symposium in Hawaii, the term umami was officially recognized as a scientific term to describe the taste of glutamate and ribonucleotides. Today, umami is widely accepted as the fifth basic taste.

Ingredients that Give Umami Taste

In Japan, China and Europe since ancient times, the ingredients that produce umami taste have been known for a long time. The umami taste is generally obtained from broth ingredients containing glutamate and ribonucleotides.

History records that glutamate has been used in the culinary world for centuries. For example, fish sauce (garum), rich in glutamate, has been used since ancient Rome. At the end of the 19th century, Chef Auguste Escoffier opened a fine restaurant in Paris by creating a menu that combined umami with salty, sour, sweet, and bitter tastes. However, the world did not know what chemical compounds caused this unique taste.

This ignorance lasted until Kikunae Ikeda discovered that glutamate was the reason for the delicious broth from kombu seaweed. He noticed that the taste of kombu dashi differed from sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Then came the historic term: umami.

Shintaro Kodama, a student of Ikeda, discovered in 1913 that dried bonito flakes contained an ingredient that also imparts another umami taste. That material is IMP ribonucleotide. In 1957, Akira Kuninaka identified the presence of GMP ribonucleotides in shiitake mushrooms, giving them their umami taste.

One of the most significant achievements of Kuninaka’s discovery is the synergistic effect between ribonucleotides and glutamate. When foods rich in glutamate are combined with ingredients rich in ribonucleotides, the resulting taste intensity is higher than the taste of the elements alone.

This umami synergy could explain some of the classic food pairings used together for so long. In Japan, for example, kombu dashi is used paired with dried bonito flakes or dashi with miso. In China, the synergy is obtained from combining green onions and cabbage in chicken soup. Then the Italians combine parmesan cheese in tomato sauce with mushrooms. Or, a combination of burgers and cheddar cheese. It can also combine mirepoix (a mixture of onions, celery, carrots and aromatic herbs) and beef stock.

Some natural ingredients that are rich in glutamate are various sources of protein (anchovies, beef, chicken, shellfish), different kinds of vegetables (broccoli, corn, carrots), multiple types of cheese (cheddar, emmental, parmesan), various kinds of seasonings (soy sauce). Fish, tomato sauce, soy sauce, miso), and multiple ingredients often used in the kitchen (dried shitake, mushrooms, kombu, nori, pekak).

Meanwhile, natural ingredients rich in IMP are dried bonito flakes, sardines (either dry or wet), mackerel, shrimp, and tuna. GMP-rich natural ingredients include mushrooms (morel, oyster, porcini, shitake, matsutake) and nori.

Petis is also categorized as a product that produces an umami taste. The characteristic of Indonesian cooking is that the savoury taste is obtained from coconut milk, peanut sauce and also shrimp paste, combined with other flavour components such as sour from tamarind or lime, sweet from brown sugar or sweet soy sauce, added with spices to create a complex combination of savoury flavours. The umami taste sensation from these mixed ingredients surpasses the taste of each element itself.

Combining techniques, salt administration, and proper cooking duration is also decisive in amplifying or strengthening the umami taste. The food world has provided glutamate, IMP, and GMP from mass production results with fermentation or microbial products.

As flavour enhancers (flavour/taste enhancers), IMP and GMP are widely used in the culinary world either in IMP or GMP only, or a combination of both as I+G. Because these two combinations (I+G) strengthen each other’s umami taste, glutamic acid (in the form of its salt, in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG)) is also widely used, including in household kitchens. The umami taste in glutamic acid is mild compared to its salt form (MSG).

Critical Points of Non-Halal

Even though they are made from natural ingredients, materials or products that produce an umami taste still have a critical point of non-halal. So companies that want to use these materials or products to make halal products must still be aware that there is a crucial point of non-halal.

The following explains the critical points of non-halal from several materials.

1. If you use natural products that give an umami taste, the critical thing is products of animal origin, especially animals that require slaughter, such as cows, chickens or ducks. If using ingredients derived from these animals in the food industry, restaurant or halal kitchen, the availability of a halal certificate from an authorized or trusted halal institution is a must.

2. Ribonucleotides are in the form of IMP, GMP, or a combination of both as I+G, so the critical point is the same as the crucial point for non-halal microbial products in general, namely ensuring that microbial growth media, additives and supporting materials use materials that meet halal requirements so that halal certificates are available. A trusted halal institution is also a necessity.

3. Vetsin or monosodium glutamate (MSG)—the same as a ribonucleotide product—is a complex microbial product in manufacturing. So the availability of halal certificates from recognized halal institutions is also a guarantee of their halal status.

4. Various types of cheese, the critical point of which is not halal, come from coagulating ingredients (enzymes and starter cultures), which can come from animal ingredients or microbial products. Therefore, a halal certificate is required from a trusted halal institution to ensure its halal status.

5. Various seasonings —soy sauce, miso, tomato sauce — are microbial products that depend on the ingredients used. If you have a halal certificate from a trusted institution, your halal status will be guaranteed. (***)

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