Umami. It's pronounced “oo-MOM-ee,” and it's such a mysterious sounding word that you might think it refers to an ethnic trend or a spiritual practice in a faraway culture. While umami is a Japanese word, what it represents is quite familiar — so familiar it was probably on the tip of your tongue last night, whether you grilled a steak, fixed spaghetti or ordered Chinese take-out.

Umami is the taste of protein, and it's a bona fide basic taste just like sweet, salty, sour and bitter.

“This is a big surprise,” says chef David Kasabian, who teamed up with his wife Anna to write “The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami.” “People never thought that protein had a distinct taste. It turns out it does.”

This distinct fifth taste characterizes steak, pot roast, short ribs and other beef dishes — as well as pork, chicken, potatoes and several other foods Americans crave. For the record, Japanese food does have plenty of umami, but French food, Italian food, Spanish food, Swedish food and American food do, too.

“Umami is everywhere; it's not some crazy Japanese idea,” Kasabian says. “You love umami and you crave umami — whether you know it or not. The foods you love — the foods that you think of as comfort foods — more often than not they are loaded with umami.”

When you taste umami, you taste proteins broken down into amino acids. And you notice when food doesn't taste umami because it tends to be a little thin, insipid and not very satisfying, he says.

“One of the major reasons Americans love beef is because of its umami,” Kasabian says. “Umami is beefy. It's meaty. It's savory. It's all those qualities we associate with beef.”

Chef Dave Zino, executive director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's (NCBA) Beef and Veal Culinary Center in Chicago, says beef is high in umami because it has three natural sources of umami: glutamic acid (an amino acid), salts of glutamic acid (called glutamates) and nucleotides.

These naturally occurring compounds produce beef's umami taste, he says.