Umami 鮮味

In one of my recent classes, the major point was sensory language. Since food is one of the most basic things to learn in a language, I made sure to cover the five basic tastes. The fifth one, umami, having only been proven scientifically recently, is not to be found in most dictionaries. At least not the ones students or the Korean teacher uses.

Korean has five basic tastes as well, but the fifth one is different. The fifth one is something a flavour I particularly like – hot/spicy. There doesn’t seem to be any direct equivalent to umami. Not surprising, since food is a big part of the culture. Korea has very different food than Japan. Other places, like Turkey, think of bitterness and spiciness as the same thing. Definitely not in my experience, but the typical foods there do not have anything that is spicy but not bitter.

Chinese is quite a broad language, so I thought maybe looking at the characters for the Chinese translation would be helpful. In Chinese, umami is known as 鮮味, or "fresh taste." Umami comes from Japanese. The meaning of umami is not necessarily "fresh taste", so I thought maybe the two characters were taken directly from Japanese. But the Kanji for umami are 旨味, in Chinese meaning "delicious taste." That can be thought of as ‘satisfying, fulfilling,’ but ‘delicious taste’ could mean a lot of other things too. I think of chocolate as delicious, but the good stuff is mostly bitter. I am not even sure chocolate has the amino acids that could allow it to be defined as umami.

Then I thought of ‘savoury,’ but the translation of that word into Korean does not carry any connotation of satisfying of fulfilling. The Korean definition relevant to food translates back into English mainly as something that isn’t sweet – in particular something salty.  It can also have a nice aroma. Aroma is smell, not taste, so I was not able to use ‘savoury.’

In the end, I just had to show a lot of different pictures of food and ask them about the flavour. The students eventually got to know that if it wasn’t one of the other four basic tastes in English (salty, sweet, bitter, and sour), then it was umami.


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