Wild About Umami
by Kate Heyhoe
If you've yet to discover the concept of "umami," let authors David and Anna Kasabian introduce you to it in their fascinating book The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami. I asked David to share with our readers some of the attributes of umami, and how, by understanding umami, we can all become better, tastier cooks. You'll see his comments below.
Essentially, umami is the fifth sibling to the basic taste categories of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. A Japanese scientist identified that the sensation of umami is caused by a specific amino acid, glutamic acid, which appears naturally in a wide range of foods, including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. By incorporating the umami-rich foods into a meal, the result is an intangible but noticeable increase in overall "flavor."
According to the Umami Information Center, "The taste of umami itself is subtle. It blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavours. Most people don't recognize umami when they encounter it, but it can be detected when eating ripe tomatoes, parmesan cheese, cured ham, mushrooms, meat and fish. Umami plays an important role in making food taste delicious."
In a sense, umami can be considered the previously unsung hero behind the common sense of many a good cook. From Brillat-Savarin to Julia Child, cooks have, largely through trial and error, developed a few universal ideas about what ingredients elevate a dish from plainly passable to perfectly seasoned. When umami was identified, cooks finally had a name and a scientific explanation for the magic thread that stitched together what most people consider "delicious food."
But here's the rub: Not all food ingredients contain the same amount of umami, hence the benefit of identifying those that are umami-happy. Here, The Fifth Taste co-author David Kasabian sheds more light on the subject of umami:
Q: Our site, Global Gourmet, specializes in global cuisines. Can you identify the predominant umami-elements that are naturally/indigenously found in a few of the world's diverse cuisines (such as Asian, Mediterranean, Scandinavian, Indian, German, even African)?
A: It doesn't matter where you travel around the globe, people are eating umami and loving it. For starters, every cuisine with recipes for braising or searing meat, preserving and fermenting foods, and eating legumes and vegetables like tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and asparagus, already has plenty of umami going on. Some globe-trotting highlights of familiar indigenous umami foods might include:
- France: broths and stocks, Roquefort cheese, red wines.
- Italy: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prosciutto ham, tomato sauce.
- Scandinavia: salted herring, pickled herring, fermented herring (a.k.a., surströmming, a revered national dish), and even fresh herring.
- Germany: cured sausages, sauerkraut, beers.
- North Africa: spicy braised meat dishes called tagines, numerous legume preparations (including falafel and hummus).
- Japan: dashi (a broth of seaweed and dried skipjack tuna), soy sauce, sushi.
- Southern Asia: fish sauce (especially in Thai and Vietnamese dishes).
- Australia: Vegemite (an intensely-tasty yeast extract). And that's just a few.
Q: Are umami-rich foods perceived universally the same way? For instance, if in Indian cooking, a common ingredient happens to be umami-rich, is it more likely that someone who has never eaten that dish or ingredient will enjoy it, simply because of the umami factor? (i.e, are umami-rich ingredients cross-cultural in their effect?)
A: Assuming other aspects of the dish are pleasing, yes, umami will heighten the eater's enjoyment of any new umami-rich food, just like you or I would enjoy the sweetness of an exotic and never-before-eaten dessert. After all, umami is just another taste, like sweet, sour, salty and bitter. When food starts hitting on those umami taste buds, our brains get happy.
Q: For the home cook, what are the five or ten most umami-friendly ingredients that can be used in almost any dish to ramp up all the flavors?
A: The umami ingredients we keep on hand (just in case something needs a little umami lift) include:
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese: Sprinkle it in soups, sauces, stews and vegetable and starch side dishes. And don't throw away that ungrate-ably rock-hard cheese rind! Toss it into those same soups, sauces and stews as they simmer and let it release its heavenly flavor.
Asian Fish Sauce: Wait. Don't turn and run. Used sparingly, there's no aroma and the umami boost is spectacular! If you like Thai food, notably Pad Thai and Tom Yum Gai (Thai chicken soup) the umami rush from fish sauce is a major reason. And see? There's no smell. Try a splash or two in soups, marinades, salad dressings, pasta dishes and casseroles. The Thai variety is called nom pla, the Vietnamese (and some say better) version is nuoc mam.
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms: Soak them in warm water for about 20 minutes to reconstitute, then chop and add to soups and sauces. Throw the filtered soaking liquid right in the pan. It's loaded with umami taste, too. Or pulverize dried shiitake mushrooms in a blender and sprinkle the resulting powder on steamed vegetables, or coat a roast with it before popping it in the oven. Mmm. Very umami.
Soy Sauce: Insist on naturally brewed soy sauce. Use a dollop in stews, meatloaf, hamburgers, braised vegetables, marinades, salad dressings and dipping sauces. Just a touch adds an umami lift. A little more adds a pleasant Asian note.
Worcestershire Sauce: This ubiquitous condiment gets most of its umami from the anchovies in the traditional recipe. Use it in most of the same ways as soy sauce.
Canned Tomatoes: Specifically, top-quality Italian canned tomatoes. Aside from their obvious use in tomato sauce, canned tomatoes add an umami kick to soups and sides that are otherwise dull. Well-drained and chilled, they spark up a winter salad, and heated with a touch of garlic, onion and thyme, they make a savory and comforting side dish that's wonderful during the colder winter months. Choose whole, crushed or sauce, depending on the texture you want in the finished dish.
Q: Are food scientists and industrial R&D kitchens, that is the folks in the labs at Lawry's or Denny's or Pillsbury, diving headfirst into utilizing the umami-factor in packaged or restaurant foods? Will we be seeing more products that are intentionally revamped to include a bit of parmesan or tomato or products like sourdough breakfast cereals or sourdough tortillas?
A: Food manufacturers have been very interested in umami for many years because it makes their products taste better. Keep an eye out for MSG, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed protein, monopotassium glutamate, among other ingredients, on prepared food labels. All of those are umami boosters, and they are used by food manufacturers to give their products more taste appeal. So far, all these ingredients appear to be safe, but they don't deliver the best-tasting umami, any more than sugar delivers the best-tasting sweet. But like sugar, these additives and seasonings are cheap. It won't be until the public understands umami and demands it in the form of natural foods that we'll see store shelves stocking delicacies like shiitake salsa, or V-8, Now with Asian Fish Sauce (both are delicious, by the way).
Q: This may sound off the wall, but...My husband and I love our six animals (and clearly from the pet industry statistics, so do many others). Animals, like humans, have their own set of very responsive taste buds. Do you think, or have you read about, anyone directing their attention to the concept of umami as it applies to non-humans? (I have this theory that humans as a species are still developing; this suggests why some people are more tuned into ESP and nonverbal communication forms than others, and why some people are better adapted to walking upright, with healthy backs and bones.) Is umami something that is limited to our species, or can cats or dogs have a fifth taste as well, that we as humans never considered? Do you think we may see Umami-Purina Chow one day?
A: Six animals, wow!! We only have one, an eight month old Golden Retriever named Amos who is way into umami, or so it appears. His gourmet packaged dog food seems okay by him, but he becomes totally rapturous when he gets to taste our umami test kitchen leftovers. Which is not surprising, for it appears that all mammals have similar taste sense characteristics, including dogs, cows, squirrels, hippopotami, bears, and mice, the animal most popular among taste-testing scientists. One known exception is the cat, which it seems can't taste sweet. Will we see Umami-Chow any time soon? Once again, when enough people are umami-smart about their own food, they'll demand it for their pets. Too bad pets can't speak up now and ask for umami themselves.
Q: What are "super tasters?" and does this have anything to do with umami?
A: Every person is different. Some have more hair. Some have bigger brains. Still others have more taste buds scattered around their mouths. People who have a lot more taste buds are deemed super tasters because extra taste buds make them super-sensitive to all five known tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Naturally, being a super taster sounds cool, like being super rich or Superman. But imagine if foods that taste perfectly normal to others were way too salty, too sour, too sweet or too bitter to you. Yuck. Umami may be the exception, however. No matter how much natural umami we add to foods, there never seems to be too much.
Q: Do you think there's the possibility of a sixth taste, yet to be discovered or identified?
A: Not just a sixth taste, but a seventh, eighth, ninth, who knows where it could end? Already, scientists at the University of Bourgogne in Dijon, France, are pretty sure they found a mechanism for the taste of—ready for this?—fat! Big surprise. We crave fat, we relish fat, we want more fat because it tastes so darn good and makes everything else taste just fabulous. It's a safe bet that there are more, harder to detect, tastes, and technology is keeping up nicely with our appetite for more taste knowledge. Taste is a work in progress.
Now that David's given us a crash-course in umami, consider these recipes as guides to ramp up the umami in your life...
The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami
Other Umami-Rich Recipes
Copyright © 2006, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created February 2006