You’ve probably been enjoying the latest craze in the food world for years and didn’t even know it.
It’s actually been identified and used in Asian cooking for more than a century, but here in the U.S., umami has only recently hit the food world like an explosion. If you’re not cooking with umami (pronounced oo-mah-me), you might as well be eating dirt.
Even though our tongue actually contains some 10,000 taste buds, we still basically taste four flavors, sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Now, however, you can’t read about food or watch Food Network or any other cooking program without someone talking about that fifth flavor, umami, and how important it is.
The problem with umami is the difficulty people have in defining it. Some say it’s the “savory” flavor of foods; others refer to it as the “silky” or “unctuous” feeling of food in your mouth; still others simply call it the “fifth flavor.” It’s an extra “oh my gosh, that’s good” factor. Rich, satisfying, reminiscent of childhood flavors, buttery, full-bodied, haunting; all terms used when people try to talk about umami.
What, exactly, is umami and how does one get it? According to the information I found on the Internet, umami is ribonucleotide, which includes isonates and guanylate, and glutamate, an amino acid, all of which occur naturally in many foods. That’s a big help, right?
Well, it’s much easier if you think of it as that indefinable feeling of pleasure you have in your mouth when you eat something rich, flavorful, almost sensuously delicious. It may also be helpful if you remember MSG and what it did and does for Asian cooking.
Do you recall when we were told about the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” and MSG in Chinese food was soundly condemned as something to be avoided? Well, forget that, because monosodium glutamate is one way of adding umami to your life. Many research studies done with MSG have reached the conclusion that it is not harmful in any way for most people. You can’t buy it in a tube in this country yet, but umami in a tube is now on market shelves in some European countries. I suspect it won’t be long before we, too, can buy umami in a tube, and won’t that be fun.
Until then, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many foods we eat every day are umami-rich; sweet potatoes, soy sauce, grape juice, tomatoes, most meats, duck, chicken, oysters, salmon, shrimp, Roquefort cheese, Parmesan cheese, shiitake mushrooms, crimini mushrooms, truffles, seaweed (especially kelp), bok choy, carrots, green tea, and I’m sure there are many others I’ve left out. The point is, as I said before, you’ve been eating umami foods most of your life; you knew they were good, you just didn’t know they were full of umami.
As always, it finally all comes down to what you do with what you have. Learn how to combine certain foods, herbs and seasonings, and you’ll have everyone at the table saying “Now, that’s umami,” or, perhaps, “You’re full of umami, Margaret.”
Meatloaf, for many people, is a much-loved food that, done well, has umami. From a cookbook called “The Fifth Taste; Cooking With Umami,” here is a meatloaf recipe that the author says may become your favorite meatloaf of all time. The fact that it is wrapped in a half-pound of bacon just may have something to do with the umami.
MEATLOAF WITH UMAMI
2 T. plus 1 t. extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
5 oz. crimini mushrooms, in ¼-inch slices
1 med. red bell pepper (see instructions for prep.)
2 lbs. ground beef
1 ripe tomato, diced then crushed
1 cup cooked corn kernels, frozen or fresh
1 cup fine dry bread crumbs
3 T. soy sauce (use Tamari, which is lighter, if preferred)
2 t. white truffle oil
2 t. kosher salt
½ t. freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil, for brushing
½ lb. hickory smoked bacon, sliced
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Heat 2 T. of the oil in a skillet; add onion and saute’ until translucent. Add garlic and mushrooms; saute’ until the mixture is golden and caramelized. Set aside to cool thoroughly.
Core and cut the red pepper into quarters; coat with remaining oil and grill on a stovetop grill or in oven until barely cooked through.
Beat eggs in a large bowl. Add all ingredients except bacon and gently mix by hand until well incorporated. (Don’t overmix; it makes the meatloaf tough.) Brush or spray a sheet pan with oil. Put meatloaf mixture on the pan and shape into a loaf twice as wide as tall. Drape the bacon slices diagonally across, overlapping them to completely cover the loaf. Secure the ends with toothpicks. Place in the middle of the oven and immediately reduce heat to 375. Bake 1 hr. or until internal temp. reaches 155 degrees. Allow meatloaf to rest 10 min., before slicing. Serves 6-8.
Most seafood items are considered umami-rich, and this seafood casserole for two is an excellent example. (For me, freshly cooked, cracked Dungeness crab is the ultimate in umami.)
SEAFOOD UMAMI FOR TWO
8 fresh oysters
1 cod fillet
1 cup chicken stock
2 T. butter
1 spring onion
3 T. flour
1 1/4 cups milk
2-3 oz. grated cheese (Cheddar or Parmesan)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 t. chopped parsley
Shell the oysters (unless you bought them already shucked), pat dry. Cut cod into bite size pieces. Cut potato and onion into 1/2-inch dice. Bring the chicken stock to a boil; add oysters and cod and poach quickly. Remove and reserve the cooking liquid.
Melt the butter in a skillet; saute’ the onion and potato until just tender. Add the flour and stir, creating a roux. Cook, stirring for 2 min. Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly and some of the reserved poaching liquid. Season to taste with salt and pepper and allow to cook on med. heat until sauce has thickened, stirring occasionally. If sauce is too thick, add more of the oyster/cod cooking liquid to desired consistency.
Pour half the onion/sauce mixture into an ovenproof dish; add oyster/cod mixture, top with remaining sauce, sprinkle with cheese. Place under a broiler until casserole is lightly browned on top. Remove from broiler, top with parsley. Allow to sit for a few minutes before serving. Serves 2.
Asian style soups are considered umami; usually clear, simple, but full of flavor. This is a good example, delicious and easy.
4 large prawns
4 shitake mushrooms
4 fresh green beans
3 1/2 cups dashi*
2 t. Tamari (soy sauce)
1 t. salt, or to taste
1 t. sake
De-vein the prawns and blanch briefly in salted water, 40-60 seconds. Remove shells.
Remove the stems from the mushrooms. Trim the beans and blanch briefly in the same water. Remove and cool.
Heat the dashi; add salt and sake. Add prawns, mushrooms and Tamari. Bring to a boil, remove from heat and serve, garnished with the beans.
*Dashi is a stock made from bonito (fish) flakes, kelp and shiitake mushrooms; available in the Asian foods section in some supermarkets, or in oriental markets. If not available, use chicken or vegetable stock.