the appetizer:

Kate proposes a simple method to achieve unique flavor in easy-to-make meals: umami, using ingredients like Ume Plum Vinegar and Tamarind, plus other flavor synergies. She also suggests holiday-related recipes in What To Eat This Month.

Kate Heyhoe
Kate's Global Kitchen

Streamlining with Power Flavors:
Easy as Umami

by Kate Heyhoe


What do Caesar Salad, Marinara Sauce and Chinese Beef with Broccoli have in common? They're all delicious, simple to make, and all umami-rich.

Caesar Salad
Caesar Salad

Last month I noted 2010 as the year of the Good Enough Revolution, and that we're moving away from complicated, time-sucking recipes and replacing them with ones that are simpler to prepare but just as mouth-watering.

One way to improvise your way to delicious dinners made with speed and ease is through umami, also known as savoriness and considered the fifth flavor (after sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.)

Once you understand umami, you'll be whipping up immensely tasty meals with just a few ingredients and a short spin in the kitchen.


Umami = Power Boost

Ever taste your own cooking and think, "This dish needs something," but you're not sure what to add? Next time you're caught scratching your head about what that elusive missing element is, peek into your pantry. Chances are it's right there, though it may not be obvious. It's not pepper or butter, tarragon or thyme, but just a dash of it will brighten these flavors, and all the ingredients in a dish.

It's known as umami, which joins sour, salty, bitter and sweet as the fifth basic taste our palates perceive. Ingredients in the umami family make everything you cook taste rounder, more complete, or simply speaking, more savory. And umami ingredients are all around us. For instance, you can get an instant umami boost with a sprinkle of aged Parmesan, a few mushrooms or dried mushroom powder, or (heavens to Betsy!) a squirt of supermarket-style ketchup.

Umami sounds complex, but you needn't delve too deeply to see how well umami works. Knowing which ingredients are umami-rich is a good start, and it helps to understand when to add them, ways to improvise, and how to create synergystic combinations—ones that will send even the crankiest star chefs into umami orbit.

Chances are you're already stocking an arsenal of umami-rich tools: all those specialty spices, seasonings, pastes, and spreads, bought for Asian, Indian, and other world cuisines. (They're typically lurking in the pantry or back of the fridge, partially used and waiting for the next time the cook feels like whipping up a Bombay buffet or Martin Yan dinner).

Many of these ingredients are intensely umami-rich, and can act as pivotal flavor boosters in any dish—such as fish sauce, pickled ginger, pomegranate molasses, or miso. By subtly integrating them into common dishes, the kind we cook by heart, we can inject a whole new level of flavor into the meals we enjoy everyday, and the ones we create for special occasions. Green beans, meatloaf, salads and chicken go from everyday repertoire to exciting meals, with just a dash, a pinch or splash of anything umami.

Sometimes a single unique "flavor" emerges from select combinations (like when painters mix yellow and blue to make green). A culinary artist can morph just two or three simple ingredients (not both of them umami ones, either) into one distinctive taste that's more than just the sum of their parts. For instance, in one shrimp dish, the late chef Michael Roberts, described the combination of cinnamon and orange as a new flavor, "reminiscent of both ingredients, but resembling neither." A typical pantry is full of under-utilized flavor boosters—foods that are now being called "umami-rich." By adding just a pinch or a spoonful to a recipe, you can round out and add sparkle to even the most mundane dish.


Flavor Synergies

Soy Sauce
Soy Sauce

Without getting too technical, umami-style flavor-boosts rely on teaming taste buds with a particular set of amino acids found in some foods (but not all). It also has to do with the synergy between an umami-rich ingredient, such as soy sauce, on all the other ingredients. In other words, you may not be able to detect the spoonful of soy sauce, but the whole dish just tastes "better." (Find out more about the science of umami in the links below).

In other words, it takes two to tango. Umami-rich ingredients sometimes they work best when combined with specific partners. When this happens, all the flavors in a dish seem to heighten. Another way to look at the phenomenon is to think of umami-ingredients as the glue that holds all the other flavors together.

Tip: The ripening and aging of certain fresh foods can enhance their flavor-boosting abilities (as in ripe tomatoes and aged beef or cheese.) Pickled foods are umami-rich, too.

Next time you're caught scratching your head when you find a dish "needs something," try punching it up with just a dash or a spoonful of these common, everyday ingredients:

What else will add an instant-umami boost to the recipes you make everyday? Consider these two specialty ingredients as examples: Ume Plum Vinegar and Tamarind.


Umami Profile: Ume Plum Vinegar

A first taste of this briny brew will make your eyes squint. But don't pass it up. Made from salted ume plums (actually a type of apricot) and red shiso leaves (which turn it pinky-purplish), just a few drops of this Japanese vinegar can be quite powerful, and it's best used instead of salt in a salad or sauce. In fact, with its low acidity, this condiment doesn't taste much like vinegar at all: it's more fruity-salty than puckery tart, but it has a clean, sharp quality that's pleasant and yet hard to pinpoint. Think of it as a very salty raspberry vinegar.

Best results: Use a wine vinegar in salad dressings as the main acidic element, then splash in some ume plum vinegar for a special undertone and roundness of flavor. Cut back on the salt, since ume plum vinegar adds considerable saltiness on its own.

Where to find it: Health and specialty food stores and in Japanese markets.

Other uses: Just a few drops punch up sauces, soups and vegetables. Carrots and fruit salads are especially good candidates for an ume plum accent, and so is ceviche (citrus-cured seafood).


Umami Profile: Tamarind


Have you ever wondered what gives Worcestershire Sauce its elusive tang? Besides anchovies, tamarind is a main umami ingredient in this classic condiment. The flavor of tamarind is not quite citrus, nor as acidic as vinegar, but it is undeniably tart and a bit fruity. In some cultures it's as essential a souring agent as lemon juice is in the West. Try tamarind instead of a squirt of lemon juice in many everyday recipes. Essential to certain Asian and Indian curries, sauces, stir-fries, and Indonesian dishes, tamarind adds a special tang, giving foods a sour, sweet-tart flavor, and powerful umami-boost. If you see tamarind in the ingredient list on spice pastes and sauces, you can use them instead of pure tamarind, or add a few drops of Worcestershire.

Preparing tamarind: Look for two main types of tamarind paste in Asian, Indian, or Latin markets: bricks with seeds, and seedless pulp or concentrate. Cellophane-wrapped bricks contain the pulp and seeds; break off about 1 tablespoon and submerge it in 1/4 cup warm water for about 15 minutes. Press the softened pulp and liquid through a strainer over a bowl to separate the usable diluted pulp from the seeds and fibers. Tamarind concentrate contains pure pulp without seeds and can be used straight from the jar. Tip: When dissolving tamarind pulp, go ahead and make enough liquid to freeze in ice cube trays, ready for later use. Substitution: Lemon or lime juice mixed with a touch of brown sugar.

Best results: Use tamarind to add tartness to glazes, barbecue sauces, and stews, or with sautéed eggplant and grilled vegetables. Spoon a bit into glazed carrots, or deglaze a pan (of pork chop, chicken or steak drippings) with some water and tamarind.

Where to find it: Because of tamarind's widespread use, all sorts of ethnic markets carry some form of tamarind. Latin, Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern markets usually stock tamarind pulp with seeds, and sometimes even the actual pods. Seed-free pulp or concentrate is more often found in gourmet or specialty food stores, but some ethnic markets stock it as well.

All about tamarind...


More Umami-Rich Resources and Recipes

The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami
     Lobster Avgolemono
     Green Bean Tempura with Asian Dipping Sauce

What to Eat This Month

February is packed with holidays and events. Here are some suggestions from our special holiday recipe pages.

Super Bowl (February 7)
     Cuban-Style Picadillo

Valentine's Day (February 14)
     Double Chocolate Valentine

Mardi Gras & Carnaval (February 16)
     Mardi Gras King Cake

Chicken of the Month:

Chinese & Lunar New Year (starts February 14)
     General Tso's Favorite Chicken (Martin Yan)


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Copyright © 2010, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

This page modified February 2010