Umami

Umami

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o, where to start with Umami, I suppose where it was discovered, Japan. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of spending some time in Japan visiting my little brother. Anyway, whilst I struggled with the language and jet lag, I did eat some amazing vegetarian food over there, including dishes I’ve not tasted anything similar to anywhere else. One of the things key to some of the brilliant and unique Japanese food was the understanding and use of Umami, which goes back centuries in Japanese culinary culture, and which has been at the centre of much discussion and research in recent years in both the east and the west.

I was utterly enamored with Japan; it was a wonderfully bizarre culture shock for me, surreal and exciting. I loved how friendly and helpful everyone was, even if they didn’t know, due to my rubbish attempts at Japanese, what they we’re trying to help us with. Perhaps not the best example but illustrative of this, was when my girlfriend and me went into a building in the center of Tokyo that we thought was a shopping centre. We spent a few minuits going up and down in the lift, surrounded by flustered looking businessmen, trying to work out where the shops were and looking touristy and confused, until one bloke took pity on us. The guy, smartly dressed in his work suit, looked awkward while he watched us trying to work out where we were. He seemed to be briefly wrestling with a dilemma before he spoke to us in broken English, nervously explaining that the building we had wandered into was filled entirely and solely with porn theatres. ‘Is all … video of women … porn … all building’ he informed us, with much head nodding and a bashful smile. It might sound weird but both me and be girlfriend found it an incredibly endearing moment (we may have laughed abit about it though), but the poor bloke was clearly there on his lunch break to ‘relax’ and was embarrassed (especially due to the unexpected presence of a western girl), but was so compelled to help us out, because we were clearly lost, that he just about overcame his anguish to assist us. It was just one of many occasions when people when out of there way, in one way or another, to help us out.

Anyway back to food and away from weird porn theater encounters. We broadly have Japanese food culture and science to thank for our contemporary understanding of the fifth taste, Umami. In brief its a savory, moreish taste, that translates as ‘deliciousness’. I see it as really interesting, particually for vegetarian food. Its found in many food stuffs and meats, but luckily meat is far from being the sole domain of the fifth taste, and it is quite easy to produce Umami rich vegetarian foods, or simply to use it to create well rounded, taste balanced recipes. So I’ll try and give abit of info and background that hopefully will serve to provide a basic understanding of the often misunderstood taste.

I’m conscious that I don’t want to turn this into a huge essay and won’t go too deep into the science of taste here, as many people could do a much better job of it than myself but I recon its good just to give abit more info about it before I return to my more usual rambling for why I recon its such an important and cool subject and give you a recipe.

Right so, essentially Umami is one of the five tastes that we can pick up, through taste receptors on the tongue, independent of smell, along with the other four so called primary tastes Salt, Sweet, Sour and Bitter. These are incredibly important in dictating whether food will seem delicious to us. On top of this base of taste we have flavour, texture, temperature, presentation, sound etc which are all vital to our experience of eating something and how pleasurable it is. But even if all the other elements are exactly as we desire them, if somethings taste is not right (i.e. its too salty or under seasoned, not sweet enough or sickly sweet) it will not be delicious, however lovely the textures, smells and presentation etc are. This is the level of importance of taste, it is the base upon which we as chefs build. Interestingly often dishes rich in Umami require less salt to taste delicious.

Umami was identified as a distinct taste in by a Japanese scientist in 1908 but it wasn’t until much more recently that Umami became internationally recognized as the fifth basic taste when it was scientifically proved that we do have a specific taste receptor it. For hundreds of years, Brown alga kumbo has been used as an Umami rich base for Japanese stocks. In the early 1900’s it was discovered it contained large amounts of monosodium glutamate more commonly known as MSG. MSG became sold as a seasoning to the large scale food manufacturers, and has been surrounded by some controversy as to whether its detrimental to health. Although its now been shown that in the vast majority of people even eating large amounts of MSG has no ill effects. However I worry about the dependence on its use as a seasoning in the large scale low cost food industry, as its often used in the place of using real and diverse flavours and tastes. Its worth noting two things here, first that there are also other Umami substances (guanosine monophosphate – from shitake mushrooms, and inosine monophosphate – from cured fish) and it is also present naturally in many different foods. Secondly MSG is not the same thing as Umami, merely a chemical manifestation of it. In fact while commercially produced MSG, at least in the media, is treated with a certain amount of suspicion over whether it could be harmful to health conversely there are now in fact studies going on into using natural sources of Umami in hospital food, to encourage elderly patients to eat by giving them meals containing the moreish taste.

As I’ve said Umami is found in various meats and fish, but obviously vegetarian dishes don’t include these foods. But also luckily Umami can be found in plenty of vegetarian foods, I’ve listed just a few of those here –

Tomatoes, tomato puree and tomato ketchup, Shitake mushrooms, Mushroom Ketchup (you can make your own or buy bottles of it), Truffles, Carrots, Soy (soy sauce, tofu), Potatoes, Italian hard cheese (remember though that traditionally produced parmesan isn’t vegetarian because it uses calves rennet), Nori, Kombu and Misso to name just a few.

Anyway, I think the best way to get an understanding of Umami is to taste it, learn to be able to identify it and then be able to consciously pick it up in food and think about how to use it your own cooking. So here I’ve come up with a pretty simple recipe for an Umami rich broth. If you fancy trying it it doesn’t take long to make and has the savory, morerish almost meaty taste of Umami in bundles. You can play with the seasonings abit - the acidity, the amount of spice you want etc, although its unlikely you will want much salt. But basically its here as a recipe that will allow you to experience and identify the wonders of the fifth taste and, most importantly, tastes amazing.

Ta
Eddie Shepherd