Monday, February 8, 2010

The Fifth Taste

What's up world? Well it's obviously been a little while since anything has happened with this blog... I could try to give excuses - holidays, travels, change of routine, etc. - but in the end there's not much point. The only point is that, well, we're back, and hopefully on a regular basis.

Now just because I haven't been updating the blog does not mean that I have not been thinking about food. I have been. Pretty much all the time.

And one of the topics that's been on my mind lately is umami. Umami is the least well known and least well understood of all the tastes, by a long shot. In fact, my spell check doesn't even recognize the word...

But its importance should not be underestimated. Umami is a crucial element of all cooking, but it's especially important to think about in vegetarian and vegan cooking, because most umami-ness comes from animal products.

But first, what is umami? Well umami is the fifth taste. We all know about sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, but then there's this other one. The word is Japanese, and it doesn't really have an appropriate translation. The best is probably "savory," or even "deep savory". It's that meaty, hearty, rich mouth filling taste. It's difficult to convey verbally what umami is, since it's not something we really have the vocabulary for. If this helps, the purest form of umami taste is found in MSG.

Umami is what makes a meaty stew so satisfying, especially in comparison to, say, a vegetarian bean stew. And that brings me to the heart of the topic.

I believe that when vegetarian cooking seems flat and unsatisfying, it is often due to a lack of attention to umami (and I hope it's clear at this point that I am no foe of vegetarian cooking). Everybody knows about salty and sweet, most know to think at least a little about sour and bitter too, but do many home cooks think about umami? Probably not...

So where do you find umami? Well the most obvious is meat, but that's not much help for vegetarian cooking. Seafood is also a particularly fertile source, with fish sauce and anchovies being prime examples. There's also marmite, if you're into that kind of thing (ok I'll admit it I kind of like marmite). But the most versatile is surely soy sauce.

I've said this before, but I add a dash of soy sauce to pretty much everything I cook. I don't do this to make my food taste like soy sauce - you certainly wouldn't want all your food to take on the distinctive taste of soy sauce - I do it to bring a little umami to the dish. Soy sauce does wonders in small quantities. Seriously, try adding a dash to your sauces, stews, whatever. It makes a huge difference.

Other really great (vegetarian) ways to get your umami include mushrooms, parmesan, and seaweed.

Mushrooms, especially intensely flavored wild mushrooms, can also do wonders. We keep dried wild mushrooms in the pantry all the time to use in cooking. Again, it's not necessarily about making your dish take like mushrooms (though of course it can be), it's about using the mushrooms for their umami giving properties.

Parmesan really doesn't need much said about it. It's great for finishing many types of dishes, especially Mediterranean style ones. One trick that not enough people know about is to save the rinds form your parmesan, then stick them in your soups or stews while they're cooking. They'll give the dish a wonderful richness and lushness (not to mention umaminess!). Pull the rind out right before your dish is done, and spread the gooey deliciousness on a piece of bread for an incredible treat.

Seaweed might need a little explanation. One of the important topics in umami, for me, is beans. I cook - and eat - a fair amount of beans. They are a fantastic and wonderfully useful ingredient, but they are also singularly lacking in umami. Seriously, try just making, say, a simple black bean stew with tomatoes and cilantro, and it will fall flat, unless you have incredibly ripe fresh tomatoes or you're topping it with a bunch of cheese, or you make it with chicken stock. The problem, as I see it, is that while beans are "meaty" in some sense, they're distinctly not meaty in the sense that, by themselves, they lack the power to bring that delicious savory satisfaction. In short, they lack umami.

But try cooking your beans with a piece of kombu first, and it's a whole different story. Kombu is a type of Japanese seaweed that packs a serious umami punch, and putting a little strip in the water when you're cooking your beans is a brilliant way to bring some glutamic acid to the party.
I'm not saying you wouldn't want to finish your stew with little cheese in the end, but it's a lot less necessary when you're cooking your beans with kombu.

So in short, don't underestimate the importance of umami! If you're cooking with lots of bacon or chicken stock or cheese, you probably don't have to think about it too much, but otherwise it is totally essential. It's one of just five tastes, for Christ's sake - you can't afford to ignore it.

If you've got other ideas about bringing the umami, hit up the comments. I'd love to hear them.