Umami 101: What It Is And Where You Can Get It In Manila

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Umami is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days.

Wherever you go, restaurants are bragging about their umami chicken, umami burgers, or umami ramen. Some stores are even claiming to sell umami seasoning!

Not only that, some restaurant critics are praising dishes for their top-notch umami flavor, even if the dish doesn’t have to do anything with Japanese cuisine.

But what exactly is umami? And how did it start to become a staple in the culinary world?

The Beginnings of Umami

Umami is a Japanese word that directly means “pleasant savory taste.” In fact, it’s commonly known as the fifth taste, after the basic sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. It’s normally described as a taste that spreads all over the tongue.

However, umami has actually only been around since the beginning of the 20th century, when a Japanese chemist by the name of Kikunae Ikeda began to notice the flavor present in ingredients like asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, meat, and the Japanese dashi stock.

Dr. Kikunae Ikeda and Saburosuke Suzuki II

Dr. Kikunae Ikeda (left) and Saburosuke Suzuki II (right)

He got to work and isolated the brown crystals of glutamate that made umami. He discovered that it was the chemical monosodium glutamate (MSG) that gave umami its distinct flavor. He soon patented this chemical.

Then in 1909, exactly one year later, Saburosuke Suzuki, with permission from Ikeda, put up Ajinomoto, which from Japanese translates as “the essence of flavor.” They are now one of the leading companies that produce MSG.

Where Can I Find Umami?

Although umami flavor can easily be added to dishes thanks to Ajinomoto, it’s also actually a naturally occurring flavor in certain types of foods. It’s commonly found in tomatoes, asparagus, and mushrooms.

Umami is also naturally occurring in certain dishes, depending on how it’s prepared. Something that has been slow-cooked for a long time, like broths and soups, are said to be full of umami.

Broth

The same thing goes for food that has gone through a fermentation process like soy sauce, cheese, and cured meats.

According to an article from The Guardian, umami flavor can be enhanced by combining ingredients that each have different umami compounds, as the flavor comes from both glutamates and chemicals called ribonucleotides. When all these flavors are combined together, it packs a stronger umami punch.

MSG's Molecular Structure

MSG’s Molecular Structure

This is why hamburgers are considered to be an umami-rich food. It’s not because of the patty, the buns, the cheese, or the tomatoes, but rather the combination of all those ingredients.

Where can I find umami in Manila?

Although umami is more of a flavor than a direct ingredient, we can’t help but see some restaurants trying to make it their selling point.

One of the most famous umami restaurants is Bad Bird, located in Century City Mall. Like their name implies, they specialize in fried chicken, which is coated in a special umami seasoning. It’s served alongside a choice of fried rice, waffles, or corn and coleslaw.

Bad Bird, Hole in the Wall, Century City Mall

Photo from Nicole V.’s looloo review for Bad Bird

Another place that serves up umami fried chicken is Burger Geek in Alabang. Their take comes with two hefty pieces of fried chicken, umami corn and a choice of kimchi rice or Korean yang chow.

Ramen is also another food rich in umami. With Uma Uma Ramen, found in S Maison in Pasay City, they specialize in broth that’s naturally full of umami flavor, meaning that they don’t use any MSG additives.

Uma Uma Ramen, Manila

Photo from Muffy T.’s looloo review for Uma Uma Ramen

Make sure to try out their signature ramen, aptly named after the restaurant itself, which comes with a spicy miso broth, generous servings amounts of green onions, charsiu, and tender noodles.

Although these restaurants may claim to specialize in umami, they don’t have the monopoly on it. You can actually find umami in any dish, whether it’s Japanese or not! It’s all the matter of finding the right ingredients and the perfect combination of them all.

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About Author

Roxie Ramirez

Roxie is a 20-something writer from Manila. When she's not beating deadlines, chasing down interviewees, or out on the field, she’s looking for the best fried chicken in the Metro.