The poetic and ephemeral fifth basic taste, umami, is the talk of the town; you can find it in these all-natural ingredients.
First things first, “umami” is really fun to say. (Any word that sounds like “oh mommy” lends itself to playful flourish in diction.) Secondly, it’s really fun – though not easy – to try and describe: It is not a "flavor," per se, it’s just yummy. It’s rich without being overbearing, it’s meaty without necessarily having meat, it’s savory without being salty, it’s delicious without being specific. It is je ne sais quoi in a nutshell.
It was back in 1908 when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda proposed umami as a fifth taste – in addition to salty, sweet, sour, and bitter – brought about by glutamic acid, a compound which naturally occurs in a number foods. (Ikeda went on to devise a method of mass-producing a crystalline salt of glutamic acid, thus giving the world monosodium glutamate, otherwise known as the yummy-booster MSG.) While the almost-abstract character of umami has relegated it to the flavor sidelines – as opposed to sweet and salty, which get most of the attention – the increasing popularity of Asian cuisines and fermented foods (both heavy with umami) are bringing the flavor newfound fame.
“Umami has been a trend topic with chefs for quite a while now, but I think the general consumer ‘foodie’ will begin delving into these flavors too,” says Chef Michael McGreal.
So where you can you indulge your umami mania? Foods like bacon and beef jerky are off the charts in terms of their naturally occurring glutamate levels – and a cheeseburger with ketchup is a umami bomb – but they’re health detractions don’t make them the best choices. Instead, try some of these healthier options.
1. SeaweedSea vegetables are brimming with glutamic acid, and thus, umami. While once reserved for enveloping sushi and garnishing miso soup, seaweed has gone more mainstream and is now commonly available in flavored snack form as well as an increasing array of other products. Look for nori – the most popular type, in addition to other varieties including kelp, Irish moss, and laver.
2. Mushrooms + trufflesYou know the meatiness that comes with mushrooms? Part of that is due to their texture, but their high naturally occurring glutamate plays an important role too. Shitake mushrooms are the most umami-ish of the fungi family, but truffles' fragrant earthiness brings out their umami too.
3. TomatoesBright in flavor, tomatoes may not be the first things that come to mind when considering the yummy-savory factor; but think of them when cooked into a simmered sauce, turned into ketchup (high in umami), or at their umami-best, sundried. Seriously savory. And when paired with the umami-coaxing nucleotide inosinic acid that is found in meat and fish, tomato’s umami is heightened even more.
4. KimchiKatherine Martinko’s excellent explanation for why we should all eat more fermented foods is enough for me; but figure in the incredible umami factor that fermentation brings to cabbage and I’m totally sold. Plus, you can make kimchi at home!
5. Parmesan cheeseThe nutty, earthy, round flavors make Parmesan one of the most umami-inspiring ingredients in western cookery. Which could go far to explain why pasta with tomato sauce, meat and Parmesan is a dish that many find hard to resist. Or, pizza. Like the mushroom pizza pictured above, which with its tomato sauce, mushrooms and cheese is a umami trifecta.
6. Fermented fish sauceIn fish sauces like the Thai Num Pla and Nuoc Mum from Vietnam, the fermentation process breaks down the proteins into amino acids and high quantities of glutamate are produced. Salty, fishy and, well, umami-y, fish sauces can be used in any number of Asian dishes (like pad thai) and specific recipes like this one for Vietnamese Glazed Pumpkin.
7. AnchoviesIf fermented fish falls on the high end of your disgusting meter (while some find it divine, others see it as, basically, rotten raw fish) … anchovies can fill the bill. (If they don’t register on the disgusting meter as well, that is.) Anchovies are both sustainable and packed with important Omega-3 fatty acids, making them a good choice all around. Add them to Caesar salad, olive tapenade, puttanesca sauce and anywhere else you want a blast of secret savory.
8. Miso pasteMiso soup comes from miso paste, a rich, pungent Asian ingredient made from soybeans fermented with rice, barley, or rye. It is very concentrated in flavor; salty and just, delicious. For vegans it’s an awesome way to add umami to just about anything, from giving vegetables a toothsome glaze to working as a stand-in for anchovies in a Caesar salad. Try it in this: Roasted Mushrooms with Miso-Ginger Butter.
9. RamenWhile long-simmered bones in water may be the least appealing idea ever to those of us who avoiding eating things with bones in the first place, it is the basis for traditional ramen – and the result is, basically, umami in a bowl. Instant ramen swaps out the glutamate of long-simmered bones with the more-convenient MSG. While a vegan ramen won't have bone-inspired umami, one can make up for it with miso, seaweed and mushrooms.
How do you get your umami fix?