Umami and Tea

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March 26, 2012 by bethanjthomas

Given the title of this blog, it seems suitable to meander on the meaning of the word umami, and specifically its link to tea, which is how I first discovered it.

Umami is the often mysterious ‘fifth taste’ discovered by Japanese scientists in the 1990s.  Only Japanese scientists could possibly discover a taste, but discover they did.

It can simply be described as ‘deliciousness’ – the lip smacking, salivating enducing taste which makes you want more of the same flavour.  Its created by the presence of glutamate in food.  Foods that are high in glutamate tend to have a thick and round mouth feel, and a savoury taste.

The flavour was first discovered in high glutamate seaweed, so its of little surprise to know that kelp is an umumi-full food, so are tomatoes, shitake mushrooms and many others.

Visiting gyokruo green tea fields a few years ago

Visiting gyokruo green tea fields a few years ago

In the tea world, umami is the mainstay of green teas, and in particular those exceptionally rare and expensive green teas like gyokuro and first grade sencha.  When prepared properly, with water of 60 – 70 degrees, these teas produce an incredibly thick, soup like infusion.  They are sweet yet savoury at the same time and have an amazingly long mouth feel that lingers.

Use boiling water to brew the same leaves and the umami will disappear, killed by the harshness of the water.  You see, umami is a shy creature.  The name is not designed to be a house hold name and you have to work hard to experience the illusive fifth taste.

Delicious gyokuro green tea leaves in a gaiwan, with sesame and soy sauce

Delicious gyokuro green tea leaves in a gaiwan, with sesame and soy sauce

But it’s so worth it.  Add sesame oil with a dash of soy to the gyokuro leaves that you infuse after you’re done…you can keep enjoying the umami flavours and enjoy a savoury snack.


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