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        Got Umami? by Cerise Cauthron

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?

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!

                                                          

Copyright © October 2006  Cerise Cauthron and Low Carb Luxury
Title photo Copyright © 2006  Neil Beaty for Low Carb Luxury





       

 

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