Until recently, the Japanese use of “umami” to describe a certain flavor was considered an oddity of the Japanese cuisine. Umami can be translated to mean “delicious” or “pleasant savory taste” and this delicious factor was separate from the “basic tastes” of salty, sour, sweet and bitter. Turns out they were on to something as science has proven them right. We actually have a specific receptor for umami on our tongue. When those receptors are titillated by umami, we think that food is “delicious.”
So what is umami? A Japanese chemist by the name of Kikunae Ikeda wondered why a broth his wife made out of seaweed tasted so delicious without being salty, sour, sweet or bitter. He noticed this same flavor in asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat. For years he worked at discovering what element made food have this delicious flavor until finally he isolated it to a specific amino acid, L-glutamate. He went on to create a stable form of L-glutamate called monosodium glutamate, otherwise known as MSG. It was a revolution as it added that “delicious” factor with a sprinkle of white powder. But, as always seems to happen when we shortchange traditional methods, MSG dragged down the quality of food.
MSG is often used to mask a poorly made dish. If you’d rather not do the work, or let a pot simmer gently on the stove for a couple of hours, you can get the instant gratification of that umami factor by simply using MSG or a product contain MSG. Little chicken noodle soup packets that you add hot water too are high in MSG, because that is what makes our brain think it tastes good, like homemade (sort of). Asian ramen noodle packets are infamous for MSG levels, and canned cream of vegetable or chicken soups also contain high amounts. Besides the questionable food quality, MSG can also cause terrible headaches for some people.
The truth is that MSG is giving us — in a rather unnatural form — what our tongue knows to be good. Our L-glutamate receptors reward us when we taste food that contains it. However, I find that it can be overly rewarding. When I eat a big bowl of pho soup at the typical Vietnamese restaurant, I find the first few bites absolutely, almost overwhelmingly delicious. It's all that MSG. But I almost can never finish a bowl, because it just ends up being overwhelming after half a bowl. When I make it at home, I find delight from the first bite to the last, because it is natural L-glutamate, well balanced with other flavors and profiles. Besides that, MSG has been rife with controversy since it appeared on the market. It is considered a neurotoxin by many and is linked to mental and bodily disorders.
I’d much rather get my glutamate in its natural, traditional form, well-balanced by other flavors. So, how do we provide our dishes with plenty of natural umami?
Here is a short list of ingredients that have umami:
Homemade stocks: Beef and chicken stocks have plenty of umami, especially when made with bones that have been roasted, but they are also rounded out with other flavor profiles. But the Japanese and Korean broths made using dried fish and seaweed are considered to be a more straightforward umami flavor.
Aged cheese: Parmesan is one of the most concentrated forms of L-glutamate in food. No wonder we like it so much!
Cured meats: As meat cures it increases its glutamate content.
Browned meats: When you brown meat before stewing it, or roast bones before making it into stock, you are increasing the glutamate content, which is why it is so delicious.
Soy sauce and fish sauce: Both potent in glutamates
Other foods high in glutamate include fish and seafood, mushrooms, Chinese cabbage and green tea
This explains my natural instinct to add tomatoes, bacon, cheese or soy sauce to any dish that lacks flavor.
Auguste Escoffier, one of the most important figures in modern French cuisine, was a master at creating a stock that was rich in flavor. He was in fact supercharging his stock with L-glutamate. His brown stock starts with roasting bones. He sautés his vegetables for the stock, then comes water along with the bones, pork rind, herbs and a clove of garlic. After the broth has simmered for 12 hours, he browns beef scraps, and deglazes it (capturing all of that beautiful flavor rich in glutamate), and adds that to the stock. I don’t use all of those steps when making a stock myself, as I find it unnecessary for a beautiful broth. However, if you’d like to really make a rich stock, doing those extra steps will certainly up your flavor profile.
For European cooking, using a homemade stock made out of roasted bones will up the umami factor, as will browning the meat. Sprinkling a well-aged cheese over dishes will add potent flavor (and nutrition!). Tomatoes have become so popular around the world, and I think that a lot of their delicious flavor comes from that umami factor. Italian cooking didn't originally contain tomatoes, but since it was introduced it has become a cornerstone ingredient. Adding tomatoes to a wide variety of soups, stews and other dishes adds a lot of flavor. Bacon or pancetta makes everything better, right? Well, it certainly adds umami to any dish you add it to!
For Asian foods, adding the traditional fish sauce or soy sauce, and using ingredients like seaweed and traditional fish broths add a pure umami flavor. That is why we like to dip sushi into soy sauce, as there is only a little umami with the seaweed before, but soy sauce is pure umami.
Now we know that our tongue can sense saltiness, sweetness, sourness, bitterness and umami. Our food will taste a lot better if we don't ignore getting plenty of umami flavor in our food.