If you are a devotee of food and wine magazines, you may have noticed a new word popping up
in nearly every issue — umami. Although this concept has been around for thousands of years
and is a conscious feature of Eastern cuisines, Western cultures are only now jumping on the
umami bandwagon. So, what's up with this tongue-twisting word and why all the fuss?
Copyright © October 2004 Cerise Cauthron and Low Carb Luxury
Umami (oo-MOM-mee) has often been, more linguistically-friendly, called the "fifth taste."
And, actually, this is correct. It is a taste, a real one. You have taste buds for umami
and umami can be sensed on the tongue when you hold your nose (the difference between taste
and flavor, which also requires the sense of smell). How to describe umami?well, the classic
descriptors are "meaty," "savory," "hearty," or "why doesn't my food taste this good at home?"
Umami has a tasty life all its own, but also enhances the taste and flavor of other things.
Frankly, stuff tastes better when umami is invited to the party. The techniques that restaurants
use to prepare foods maximize the use of umami and they also know some secrets to sneakily use
umami in their food preparation. Let's dig deeper?
It is believed that taste and taste reception was evolved to safeguard our beautiful bodies.
We tend to avoid the biter and sour — many toxic substances have these characteristic tastes.
We like salt; salt is necessary for the body's water balance. We like sweet; carbohydrates
and sugars provide necessary energy. And umami? Well, umami is actually one of the first
tastes you develop and it makes you like protein. Umami receptors are sensitive to free glutamate,
which is a fancy way of saying they respond to the most widely occurring amino acid in nature and
one of the most abundant amino acids found in plant and animal proteins. We can't actually
"taste" protein, but we can taste the pieces and parts into which proteins are broken down.
Glutamate is abundant in breast milk — umami makes babies want to drink mother's milk, since
it tastes good. In nature, carnivores and omnivores (creatures eating both plant and animal
tissue regularly) respond positively to umami; herbivores are indifferent or even repelled by
umami-rich vittles. Rabbits rarely order steak when they dine out.
So, it stands to reason that meats and protein-rich foods have a boatload of umami. Correct!
And, ever wonder why aged meats and cheeses are so much more flavorful than their fresh
counterparts? Well, the aging process concentrates the umami, making them more appealing to
the tongue. Prolonged cooking does the same thing — a fresh tomato sauce does not have the
rich, robust taste of one that has been slow-simmered on the back burner of your grandmother's
stove all day. Cook your chicken or beef stock for hours and it is heaven; boil a few minutes
and, well?.High-heat cooking enhances umami — a flame-kissed burger vs. steak tartare. Drying
also concentrates umami. Dried fish and many herbs/spices are just eat up with umami. Umami
is also found in nucleotides, the basic structural units of DNA, among other things. When
foods that contain glutamates are combined with foods that have certain nucleotides, the umami
magnifies. Mushrooms have the right nucleotides and they nicely demonstrate the umami
spectrum: raw mushrooms have some umami, sauteed mushrooms have more, caramelized or dried
mushrooms (long cooking or sauteeing) have more still. Grilled sirloin + sauteed
mushrooms?oh yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about?
See the pattern? Restaurants have the time, equipment and willing hands to draw out the
natural umami in foods and choose ingredients that are naturally rich in umami to tantalize
your tongue. And meats or dairy are not the only foods rich in umami. Soy products tend to
be umami-ful. Wonder why many recipes for marinara sauce or chili calls for a splash of soy
sauce? Soy sauce is very umami-happy and, by using a touch, you can shorten cooking times,
while still attaining umami bliss. Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, miso, hoisin sauce,
oyster sauce, Bovril and Vegemite impart a similar impact. Dried seaweed — nori — makes for
good umami. Raw fish aren't the most umami-rich items, but wrap in nori and dip in soy sauce
and your mouth goes silly for sushi. Kombu (seaweed) simmered in a broth is traditional in
Japanese cooking for umami-ing up soups and sauces.
Not to be outdone, veggies and fruits also can have a signficant umami appeal. The umami
level increases with the age and state of ripeness. Duh?a ripe fruit or vegetable is far
more pleasing to the tongue than the immature version. Cooked produce gives your more mouth
joy than raw. Let's face it, a salad does not make us dance with the same vigor as a platter
of veggies roasted in the oven or served sizzling from your barbeque. Tomatoes are especially
rich in umami; mushrooms are winners; beans, cucumbers, , onions, peaches, broccoli?most
fruits and veggies contain some umami and many of our LC faves are good umami providers.
Corn is also high in umami, but we shall not speak of such things. The allure of popcorn
and corn on the cob — dang them umami tastebuds!
Alcohol is another tool to enhance umami. Liquors such as vodka or rum don't really have
umami themselves, but they do act as a solvent to help release the umami of other foods.
Fermented beverages, though, such as beer and wine do have umami (fermentation, like cooking
or drying enhances umami — saurkraut vs. raw cabbage). Hearty, rich red wines, especially
those with high ripeness levels such as Shirazes, and whites that have extended lees contact
(contact with deposits of yeast and other solids formed during fermentation) such as fat,
ripe, creamy Chardonnays and voluptuous, delicious Champagnes tend to have the most umami.
However, one must pay attention to umami when pairing food and wine. The umami taste in
food increases the perception of bitterness in wine and may leave a metallic aftertaste.
It also makes the wine seem more astringent. So, wines can enhance low-umami foods, but
high-umami foods can interfere with your enjoyment of a fine vintage.
But there is one last rabbit up my sleeve. It is actually the one that has been most
commonly employed in the food service trade and has caused as much ruckus than the use
of saccharin. What is the name of this rabbit? Monosodium glutamate or MSG. Stop
screaming, it won't do any good. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate. Think of it as
high-test umami in a jar. MSG can make "its-all right" food taste better and good food
taste divine. It can take foods with low-moderate natural umami levels and lift them to
soaring heights. Chinese restaurants are often thought of when it comes to MSG and that
is no accident. MSG gives that meaty richness and mouth-sensation to Asian dishes, even
when they contain no meat at all! Often, your bowl of egg drop soup had not one whit of
chicken stock floating about. Egg, water, MSG, salt and food coloring. There you have
it. Those veggie stir-fries that just tasted so darned good at the restaurant and, no
matter what you did, you couldn't recreate the taste at home? MSG. Those canned/jarred
sauces, soups, chilies that you love from the grocery store? MSG. That, or other
tweaked materials like autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (messed around
with to significantly increase their umami). Those folks at the soup company aren't
better cooks than you — they just have the magic ingredients.
The issue of MSG safety is muddled and murky. For every well-supported,
professionally-conducted study that supports "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," there is
another that finds no correlation between MSG and the associated symptoms. It has
been shown that MSG does not contribute to Alzheimer's, Huntington's chorea, amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis, AIDS dementia complex, or any other chronic diseases. Also, no
evidence points to dietary MSG as a cause of brain lesions or damage to nerve cells.
There has been some indication that for a small portion of the population, high
concentrations of MSG, especially on an empty stomach or with a clear liquid like soup,
can cause certain symptoms such as headache, tingling in the extremities and nausea, but
the amounts used in standard restaurant fare don't tend to reach as high as those tested.
Also, there is evidence that MSG can aggravate asthma is certain folks. The FDA mandates
that foods with added MSG state so in the ingredients list, but a food saying NO MSG may
contain other enhanced-glutamate sources, such as hydrolyzed proteins. Since consumers
are generally only familiar with MSG, they take the NO MSG on the label to mean that the
product hasn't been artificially umami tweaked. The concerned consumer must read the
labels to see to the real story. If you are not MSG sensitive, you can purchase MSG
cheaply through online spice houses and local vendors to use at home. Remember, though,
a tiny pinch is all you need. About ? teaspoon of MSG does fine for a pound of meat or
four-to-six servings of vegetables, casseroles or soup. Too much MSG and the flavor
balance will be upset and you'll be shooting yourself in the foot, culinarily speaking.
The one area in which MSG won't do you any good is with sweets. Sugary stuff just
doesn't have any natural umami to enhance. On its own however, chocolate does have
umami. (Now is that any real surprise?)
For an LC cook, using ingredients naturally high in umami, employing the proper cooking
techniques or relying on modern science for a hand are all ways to maximize the enjoyment
of mealtime. For many, the fear before going low carb is that low carbing means getting
less enjoyment from food. That is just not the case. Arm yourself accordingly and
you'll be preparing restaurant-quality food in no time!
Title photo Copyright © 2004 Neil Beaty for Low Carb Luxury