Umami and Tea

Gyokuro Japanese Green Tea (Photo source: The English Tea Store)
Gyokuro Japanese Green Tea (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

Forget for the moment that it sounds like something from a playground joke (umami’s so fat…). If you’re like me, you probably weren’t aware until relatively recently that umami is one of the five major taste types, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. But it’s nothing new, as a matter of fact, having been first proposed more than one hundred years ago.

Given the name, you probably won’t be too surprised to learn that umami was a concept first proposed in Japan, by a Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda. There are a number of ideas on what the word umami actually translates to, but my personal favorite is “yummy.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that the notion of umami wasn’t really that widespread here in the West, at least not to us average Joes, until just a few years ago. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention.

The astute reader will notice that I have yet to describe what umami actually tastes like. Given the difficulty of describing what anything tastes like without comparing it to something else, I’ll solve this one by listing a few of the foods said to be high in this particular taste. Foods such as seaweed and certain types of seafood and tomatoes, soy beans and certain mushrooms. For more foods that are high in umami content, check out this page from the Umami Information Centre (yes, Virginia, there is an Umami Information Centre).

Then there’s tea. Green tea, in particular, which is said to have an especially high concentration of umami flavors. You can go back to the Umami Information Centre for The Umami of Green Tea, an article that explains this angle in a little more detail and more or less in layman’s terms. Not so much – as far as the layman’s terms go – for various other studies that look at the connection between umami and tea.

But if you’re of a scholarly bent you might find a couple of these studies to be of some interest. Here’s one in which Japanese researchers studied a Japanese variety of green tea and came to conclusion that “glutamic acid, theanine and citric acid are important for umami taste of Gyokuro.” Here’s a 2006 study by Japanese and German researchers which took a look at the powdered Japanese green tea called matcha and which was titled Molecular and Sensory Studies on the Umami Taste of Japanese Green Tea.

Umami in green tea (Photo source: screen capture from site)
Umami in green tea (Photo source: screen capture from site)

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One thought on “Umami and Tea

  1. Greg Demmons

    Umami also includes the “good for you” factor as well. While living in Japan I encountered this many times as a tea teacher (Korean Green Tea), and it wasn’t until my 4th year there that I heard a definition that fit all the different times umami (pronounced long ‘u’ as in oolala or oolong, no ‘y’ sound) applied to food and drink experiences.

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