In the highfalutin circles of cookery, one of the current bywords is the unlikely sounding umami, and it’s all about a certain je ne sais quoi that our pallet experiences with certain foods. For the rest of us, it’s just a funny noise we sometimes make when something tastes good.
Growing up, there were the basic four flavors of fare: salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. For the most part, these were identified with the extremes: Potato chips were salty, candy sweet, lemons sour, and bitter … no one was really ever that sure about bitter, but we knew it was there. Sweet and salty reigned supreme, and anything sour received enough sugar to become sweet, a la lemons into lemonade. Umami never factored in.
Back then, the subtleties of combining these flavors — aside from sweet and sour staple of American Chinese food — wasn’t such a big thing, or at least not a conceived goal, but the contemporary kitchen is vastly different. Nowadays, we are stretching our pallets in all directions, probing the bounds from which our food can break. Who knew, after all this time, we’d discover that food had a secret super power?
A Brief History of Umami
In actuality, the existence of umami has been suspected for quite some time now. As far back as the 1800s, a famous French chef, Escoffier, noted that his veal stock (probably not going to be a popular guy on this site) had a fifth flavor, something that wasn’t defined by potato chips, candy or lemons. He even went so far as to cite this fifth flavor as the source of his success.
Clear across the Eurasian continent, Japanese folks were noticing the flavor, too. In fact, at about the same time, a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, officially began investigating what the mysterious flavor was, and it was he who proclaimed it umami, or “pleasant savory taste.”
What Is This Pleasant Savory Taste?
In essence, getting down to the science of it all, umami is actually glutamate. Glutamate is a type of amino acid found in many things, including meat and dairy, as well as certain fruit and vegetables, mushrooms and green tea. When fermented or aged or cooked or ripened, food with umami starts to acquire notable taste.
For Kikunae Ikeda, it was a traditional Japanese seaweed soup, something that had been in the culture for ages, that stirred his curiosity. But, it wasn’t until the 1980s that umami began to be a globally recognized thing, and not until MSG did it become a really big thing. But, of course, MSG isn’t exactly tops on the healthy or quality food options list, so it was only recently that umami became a sought after element for topflight chefs worldwide.
But, How Does One Sense Umami?
The descriptions of what umami tastes like are often vague at best. It is describe as subtle and is attributed such distinction as only being recognized by those who pay particular attention to the flavors of what they eat. And, while the umami sensation can’t be created by blending salty, sweet, sour and/or bitter, umami is more recognizable by its ability to round out these flavors.
What seems quite apparent in the main types of foods listed as card-carrying members of the umami club is that they all have the potential to create a sort of oozy quality to food, something that coats the mouth with flavor. Soups and broths are often umami providers, as are lots of fermented things and seafood — including plants — items.
Another way to recognize it is that umami keeps us coming back for more, a characteristic many note for foods containing MSG.
Which Foods Are Full of Umami?
Seafood, in particular, is a high umami food, notably popular sea plants like kombu (from Kikunae’s broth) and seaweed. Additionally, lots of fruits and vegetables make the list, amongst which are tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, Chinese cabbage and soybeans. Other popular plant-based foods with the umami factor include shiitake (and different) mushrooms, green tea, and truffles.
Here are some great recipes for some personal umami exploration:
- Shiitake Asparagus Stir Fry with Toasted Cashews and Wasabi Avocado Cream: Both asparagus and shitake are umami superpowers.
- Rich Vegan Soba Soup: Including tofu, miso paste, seaweed and carrots, this one has umami all over the place.
- Eggplant, Onion and Tomato Stew: Eggplant and tomato are two of the more common veggies with umami undertones. Toss some okra in here for a little extra.
Now, who can discern the taste that is umami?
Lead image source: Eggplant, Onion and Tomato Stew