March 1

The 5 Basic Flavors in Japanese: 5 味(あじ)


How to read this series

Each article augments Japanese words throughout its text. The vocabulary throughout the text is related to cooking, food, and flavor. Below each block of text will be a drop down menu that contains the meaning and reading of each word, Like this:

和食(わしょく) is a cuisine loved by people all over the world. Yet, most people don't know how to cook 和食 because they don't understand the 食材料(しょくざいりょう)in Japanese recipes.

Section Vocabulary


"Wa-shoku" – Japanese cuisine

和:わ:Japanese style; harmony

食:しょく:eat; food


"shokuzai-ryō"– ingredients

食:しょく:food; eat



This dropdown menu can be used in your preferred study method. We recommend that you attempt to read through each section first without revealing the word meanings, and make educated guesses based on context clues. Then, reveal the word meanings and read the section once more using the drop list for reference.

This is of course completely up to you, as you might prefer to read each drop list first, before reading each section. There are no right or wrong ways to use this tool, although we DO suggest that you use some form of memorization. So try to keep the words hidden for as long as possible, or go off of memory or context for as long as you can, and don't be afraid to read a section more than once!

The 5 Basic 味

To understand 和食(わしょく), you have to start with the building blocks of 味 (あじ). While 和食 has a wide array of unique flavor profiles, the same five flavor profiles that all humans can perceive act as the basic pillars of 味付け(あじつけ). These profiles are:

Understanding the meaning of each kanji gives us deeper insight into how the Japanese people think about and prepare food. In this article, we'll explore each one to see how food defines language, and how language defines food. By the time you're done reading, you'll understand how learning about 味 in its source language will instantly change the way you cook Japanese food!

Section Vocabulary


"Washoku" – Japanese cuisine

和:わ:Japanese style; harmony

食:しょく:eat; food


"aji" – flavor; taste


"aji-tsuke" – flavor development

味:あじ:flavor; taste

付け:つけ:to add; to join; to fix

Section Vocabulary (Flavor Profiles)


"enmi" – salty


味:み:flavor; taste


"kanmi" – sweet


味:み:flavor; taste


"sanmi" – sour


味:み:flavor; taste


"umami" – savory

旨:うま:savory; skilled; great

味:み:flavor; taste


"nigami" – bitter


味:み:flavor; taste

味 – The Life of Flavor

The Kanji for "flavor" is 味, read in its 訓読み(くんよみ)form as あじ.

In its transitive verb form, it becomes 味わう, which has several different meanings:

  1. to taste (e.g. food)
  2. to relish (e.g. pleasure)
  3. to experience (e.g. pain)

You might 1. 味わう a bowl of level 8 curry on the spiciness scale, 2. 味わう the aromatic torrent of exotic herbs and spices in the roux, and then 3. 味わうthe painful after effects of heart burn and indigestion for hours after.

In its 音読み(おんよみ) form, 味 is pronounced み and can be attached to the end of flavor profiles to denote a subjective level of taste sensitivity that might vary from person to person. For example, the 辛味(からみ)of the aforementioned curry might keep you tethered to the restroom for hours, while your buddy who lived in India for a year might not have even broken a sweat eating it.

Section Vocabulary


"kunyomi" – the native Japanese reading of a kanji

訓:くん:instruction; native Japanese reading



"onyomi" – the Chinese-derived reading of a kanji




"karami" – spiciness (subjective)



The Evolutionary Purpose of 味

According to scientific theory, humans have evolved with certain taste receptors for survival purposes. Each distinct 味 tells our brains something about the food we're tasting.

塩味 Enmi – Salty

塩味 tells us that a food is high in sodium, which is an important mineral for bodily functions. As with all 味, our 塩味 taste receptors also serve as moderators to tell us when the amount of 塩 is too high in a substance. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and if the 塩分(えんぶん)of a food is too 濃い(こい), our brains are telling us that this dose is a potential 毒性(どくせい). If you've ever had a shot of straight 醤油(しょうゆ)then you know exactly what we mean! 

If you're feeling a bit salty about it, you can read in more detail here >>

Section Vocabulary


"enbun" – salt content; The amount of sodium in a food




"koi" – strong; dark; potent


"dokusei" – toxic; poisonous

毒:どく:poison; germ

性:せい:essential nature; gender


"shōyu" – soy sauce

醤:しょう:a kind of miso


甘味 Amami – Sweet

甘味 registers as a calorie-dense food, which was incredibly beneficial to us as a species before we figured out how to grow 野菜 (やさい)and 果物(くだもの). Calories are energy, which we needed to hunt 動物(どうぶつ)for their 肉(にく). In the plains, and forests, and coasts we used to hunt and gather, any form of 炭水化物(たんすいかぶつ)was a lifesaver. 甘味 told us that a food was high in them! This explains why we love 砂糖(さとう)so much, even though we eat so much of it that it makes us sick. 

Think you're the sweetest thing this side of Hachiko? Learn about sweetness in Japanese cooking here >>

Section Vocabulary


"yasai" – vegetable

野:や:plains; field; rustic

菜:さい:vegetables; greens


"kudamono" – fruit

果:くだ:fruit; reward

物:もの:thing; object


"dōbutsu" – animals

動:どう:move; motion

物:ぶつ:thing; object


"niku" – meat; flesh


"tansui-kabutsu" – carbohydrates



化:か:change; take the form of

物:ぶつ:thing; object


"satō" – sugar



酸味 Sanmi – Sour

酸味 alerts the brain that a substance may be 腐っている(くさっている), and thus may be dangerous to eat. Alternatively, it can detect foods high in vitamins and minerals that carry a 酸っぱい(すっぱい) flavor profile. In theory, the brain knows the difference between "good 酸味", such as the tartness in a handful of blueberries, and "bad 酸味", such as a slimy apple covered in green mold.

If you want to cut to the chase – or just through that oily tempura – you should read about acidity in Japanese cuisine here >>

Section Vocabulary


"kusatteru" – rotting; rotten

腐る:くさる:to rot; to go bad; to decay; to spoil


"suppai" – sour

旨味 Umami – Savory

旨味 is the 味 most recently recognized by science as an official taste that humans have the ability to perceive. It's abundant in all sorts of nutrient-rich foods, including sharp cheeses, tomatoes, and 肉. Evolutionarily, this food tells the brain that the food is a great source of 蛋白質(たんぱくしつ)and 脂肪質(しぼうしつ)which is why we find foods high in it so satisfying. 旨味 is a fascinating subject that we'll take a deep dive into on a (LATER SECTION), having first been recognized by a Japanese scientist in the early 1900s!

Section Vocabulary


"tanpaku-shitsu" – protein

蛋:たん:egg white


質:しつ:substance; quality


"shibō-shitsu" – fat

脂:し:fat; grease; lard

肪:ぼう:obese; fat

質:しつ:substance; quality

苦味 Nigami – Bitter

苦味 receptors likely evolved to detect 毒性. In nature, 毒 is generally 苦い(にがい), in the same was that 酸味 usually means something is 腐ってる. This makes 苦味 one of the two 味 that mean 「注意!危険です!」(「ちゅうい!きけん です!」)to the human palate. It's through social learning that we can learn to like these 味, which explains why this writer drinks so much black coffee.

Section Vocabulary


"nigai" – bitter


"chūi" – CAUTION

注:ちゅう:concentration; notes; to pour into

意:い:idea; mind; thought


"kiken" – danger; hazard

危:き:dangerous; fear

険:けん:steep place; sharp eyes; precipitous

味付け – Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

While the scientific theory behind WHY we can taste all the flavors sure is interesting, it's not going to teach us how to cook. To do that, we need to learn how to combine different 味 in different ways, and in different 量(りょう). This is the art and science of 味付け, and it's what makes 食べ物(たべもの)so much fun.

When combined well, the various 味 bolster each other and transform one another. Whole new profiles take form, and become greater than the sum of their parts. Season some 鶏もも(とりもも)with 塩 only, and it'll be palatable, if a bit boring. Season it with 砂糖 instead, and you'll have some rancid meat candy. Soak it in 酢, and it'll probably just tense up. However, combine all of these profiles in the right amount, add the right kind of heat and a few choice spices, and you have a succulent flavor bomb.

In the following articles We'll break down each of the 5 flavor profiles one by one using their Japanese translations. We'll take a look at: 

  • what each flavor profile does in 味付け
  • how each one works when combined with the other flavor profiles
  • examples of 調味料(ちょうみりょう)high in each flavor profile
  • the multifaceted Japanese word meaning of each

Section Vocabulary


"ryō" – amount


"tabemono" – food

食べ:たべ:food; eat

物:もの:thing; object


"torimomo" – chicken thigh




"chō-mi-ryō" – condiments

調:ちょう:tune; tone; arrange

味:み:flavor; taste

料:りょう:materials; fee

If you're ready to take your 味付け skills to the next level, then continue on to our first flavor profile, 塩味!(COMING SOON)

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