Welcome to Ramen 101, an ongoing series that lays out everything you need to know about ramen to go from instant-only experience to full-fledged expert.
What is Umami?
For starters, it’s a word that any food lover needs to not only know but understand, and a word that’s absolutely essential to any ramen lovers’ slurping experience.
At its core, Umami is one of the five basic tastes: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and Umami (also known as savory). It’s a deep, often subtle taste that provokes a satisfied feeling, and it’s undeniably delicious. In fact, “Umami” roughly translates to “deliciousness” in Japanese.
Because Umami is rarely used alone it is can be difficult to consciously recognize, but your body recognizes it immediately because the Umami taste is triggered by the presence of glutamate, an essential nutrient your body is hardwired to seek out to promote digestion and the sense of fullness.
Consciously recognizing Umami can be easily learned though, and one key to recognizing it is that it lasts longer on the tongue than other basic tastes. For example, take a tomato in your mouth and swallow it after chewing about 30 times. That taste you’ll feel on your tongue even as the sourness and sweetness fades? That’s Umami.
Turning to ramen, the birth and evolution of ramen in Japan is deeply associated with Umami. For example, the basic Japanese soup stock, dashi, is made from kelp that’s rich in glutamic acid and dried bonito flakes that are rich in inosinic acid. Throughout the decades chefs have discovered that combining the two has a synergistic effect that amplifies the Umami taste several fold.
From soy sauce to pork bones and well beyond, over time ramen has evolved to contain complex combinations of these Umami-containing elements, so whether you know it or not, it’s Umami you’re reacting to when you slurp down a great bowl. Any great ramen chef is obsessed with bringing out as much Umami flavor in their dishes as possible, and a particularly Umami-filled bowl will inspire a ramen lover to travel for miles to taste it.
We should pause here for a moment to acknowledge MSG (Monosodium glutamate). The relationship between ramen and Umami is closely related to chemical food additives such as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), and many ramen shops add MSG to their soups because it help give their ramen a consistent taste even when the quality of the ramen bowls vary.
While MSG can be one way for ramen shops to attempt to achieve that “deliciousness,” when artificial ingredients like MSG are consumed they can knock our taste preferences out of whack and cover up the complexity of great food. At Ramen Hero we don’t use MSG because we know that we can achieve a full, rich Umami flavor through natural ingredients, and we want all our customers to have the experience of tasting unadulterated, nutrient-rich Umami without additives.
The reason we rolled out a new recipe for our Classic Tonkotsu ramen is because we figured out a way to extract even more Umami from the pork bones, and it took us months to perfect our new vegan flavors because we wouldn’t release it until we were confident we had discovered how to bring out all the natural Umami flavors of any of the best ramen using entirely vegetable-based ingredients.
Hopefully after even just this quick read you’ve got a better intellectual understanding of what Umami means and why it matters for food lovers, but Umami really has to be tasted to be understood.
We invite you to dive into the world Umami headfirst through one of our ramen kits, and keep an eye out for our next Ramen 101 article, where we’ll roll through a brief history of ramen’s origins. In the meantime, happy slurping!