In Search of Umami

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By Jane Pike

Ever wanted to know how to dramatically boost the flavour in any meal? You can easily intensify the deliciousness of any dish with ingredients that are probably sitting in your pantry right now. And it will change the way you cook even the simplest of meals.

The secret? Umami.

Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. While difficult to describe, we recognise umami when we encounter it. In English, we might describe the flavour as ‘meaty’ or ‘savoury’. In Japanese, the characters for umami literally mean ‘delicious flavour’. Simply put, umami adds yumminess.

Umami has an elusive quality, with no strong taste in itself. It provides a rich, full, lingering mouth sensation. It also accentuates, strengthens and unifies other flavours. Umami causes salt to taste saltier, sugar sweeter, and sour and bitter flavours more rounded.

The umami taste is created by the amino acid glutamate and ribonucleotides. Usually, food contains glutamate in the form of a bound up amino acid that does not cause umami. But various cooking and food preparation methods transform glutamate into its unbound form, free glutamate, which reacts with the taste buds to create the umami taste sensation.

Japanese scientist Dr Kikunae Ikeda first identified umami as a distinct flavour in 1908. But umami only gained scientific legitimacy in the twenty first century, when a number of studies confirmed that we have receptors on our tongues with the sole purpose of recognising the presence of glutamate. Yes, our tongues are hard wired to appreciate umami.

Cultures throughout history found ways to develop umami rich ingredients. Three thousand years ago, Greeks and Romans used a fermented fish sauce called garum to unknowingly add umami in their foods. And umami rich foods play a central role in a range of cuisines, from Chinese oyster sauce to Japanese dashi and Italian parmesan cheese.

Foods rich in umami

Bonito flakes
Aged cheese, especially parmesan
Soy sauce
Thai fish sauce
Oyster sauce
Cured hams, including bacon
Tomatoes especially tomato paste, tomato sauce, sundried and roasted tomatoes
Wine – especially big, rich reds
Vegetables: soy beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, Chinese cabbage, carrots, shiitake mushrooms
Worcestershire sauce

Umami cooking tips

Release the power of umami in your own cooking by incorporating umami rich ingredients. You don’t need fancy ingredients or techniques, and don’t reserve it just for special occasion meals. Here’s some techniques I use to add umami to everyday dishes:

Anchovies. Seriously. High in glutamate and ribonucleotides, they are tiny flavour miracles. Slip a few salty anchovies into stews and sauces. They’ll melt away to leave only a richer depth of flavour. Feed this to anchovy haters. They’ll beg for more.

Thai fish sauce is my secret weapon. This stuff almost feels like cheating it’s so good. Add a dash to sauces, salad dressings, soups, stews, and frying onions. Like the above anchovy example, it doesn’t leave a fishy taste. But it exponentially increases the deliciousness of any savoury dish.
Add a dash of tomato paste, soy sauce, vegemite and Worcestershire to soups, braises, gravy and sauces. Top it off with a few drops of balsamic vinegar.

Buy some dried porcini mushrooms and grind them to a powder in a coffee or spice grinder. Add a pinch of the powder to soups, braises and sauces in combination with other glutamate rich ingredients.

Toss a parmesan cheese rind into a pot of soup as it bubbles away.

Use cooking techniques that break down protein and release free glutamate, such as roasting, drying, ageing, fermenting, curing and slow cooking.

Layer umami flavours in dishes by adding multiple umami-rich ingredients to create a balanced result.

Create an umami power boost

Take your umami cooking to the next level through food combinations. Warning: more chemistry talk ahead.

You can intensify umami flavour by combining glutamate rich food with food containing ribonucleotides. Ribonucleotides give off some umami, but more importantly they magnify the umami flavour in foods rich in glutamate. The resulting taste intensity is much higher than the sum of both ingredients. Three types of ribonucleotides occur naturally in foods: adenylate, inosonate, and guanylate. Adenylate is mostly found in seafood, especially scallops, squid and prawns. Inosinate rich foods include dried bonito flakes, sardines, tuna, beef, prawns, anchovies, chicken, and pork. Guanylate is primarily found in dried shiitake mushrooms.

So, for example, asparagus (glutamate) + bacon (inosinate) + mushrooms (guanylate) = umami flavour bomb.

A word of warning: as with anything, moderation is key. While tiny umami flavour bombs will delight the senses, full course dishes with an overload of umami will exhaust the taste buds. You want to achieve a balance of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami to achieve maximum deliciousness.

Jane Pike works in the Communications field and runs a small business, Jungle Jane Skin Care Her interests include spicy food, curling up with a good book and exploring new places.



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