For some, it’s only a buzzword, while others regard it as the 5th taste. From what I can gather, umami is a Japanese word that’s rather difficult to translate. Deliciousness, savoury, earthy, meaty, brothy and my favourite, “enchanted taste,” have all been suggested — and all have been found lacking.
So we can’t name it…what is it?
From a scientific standpoint, umami happens when certain amino acids meet certain ribonucleotides. Fun stuff — I read about it here and here, but while I can pile on the food facts & lore with the best of them, I don’t do food chemistry, thanks very much Heston B.
Beyond the science, pinning down the essence of umami proves tricky once again. Rather than defining it as a specific type of taste, many prefer to laud its ability to enhance other flavours — naturally.
All of this debate over what to call it and how to define it shouldn’t serve to foster doubt over it’s existence. Make no mistake — umami is real — and according to recent research it seems to have a very specific function: to encourage the ingestion of protein-rich foods. Which makes it all about survival, baby.
I like to call it Umami: Do or Die.
Here are 5 ways to get the most umami bang for your buck:
1. Grab a slice for lunch. Tomatoes and aged cheeses like Parmesan are super high in umami. Other toppings such as anchovies, olives and dried meats can also boost the count. And all this time I thought it was the fat and bread calling to me…
2. Prepare Porcini Powder. Many mushrooms are high in umami, including Porcini, Morel, and Shiitake. Make your own mushroom powder by pulsing dried mushrooms in a coffee grinder. Add a spoonful to fried rice, pasta sauces, soups and your thanksgiving stuffing! Just a little bit adds and earthy flavour and depth.
Of course, THE EXALTED TRUFFLE also has an umami count through the roof – but most of us don’t have a couple hundred dollars to drop on fungi (even if he’s good looking too). Try the more economical truffle oil, truffle butter and truffle salt.
photo by FotoosVanRobin
3. Add a Dashi of this and a Dashi of that. Dashi (should I say it one more time?) is a stock made from dried kombu (kelp) and bonito (mackeral or skipjack) that serves as a foundation for much of Japanese cuisine. Simply add some fermented bean paste (see #4) and you’ve got a killer miso soup that will stop a hangover dead in its tracks — how else can Japanese salarymen burn the candle at both ends?
photo by Johnson Cameraface
4. Get your ferment on.
“Marmite on wheat toast and miso with noodles,
Soy sauce on ahi and red wine in pools,
Kimchee and sauerkraut tied up with string,
These are a few of my fermented things!”
(Somewhere, Julie Andrews just died a little death.)
photo by T.MoE
5. Relax with a cuppa — green’s a go. All varieties of tea, be they green, black, white or oolong, originate from the leaf of the Camellia sinensis plant. The variations in the production process result in the different types of tea. Unroasted green tea, where the essential elements of the tea plant are left largely intact, is your best source for a shot of umami with your caffeine.