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Umami – The Best-Kept Secret to Flavorful Food

Posted Oct 02 2009 3:07pm

Ever wonder why some vegetarian dishes taste so rich and satisfying while others taste like cardboard? This is the magic of “umami”, the best-kept secret of professional chefs, who strive to create the most savory, full-bodied meals for their guests.

Umami is another word for “savory-ness” or “deliciousness”. Until umami came onto the scene in the 80’s, food connoisseurs were limited to only the four coined tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The fifth taste – umami – adds dimension and roundedness, a sense of fullness and depth of flavor. It’s no wonder that the man who coined the word also patented the manufacture of MSG (mono-sodium glutamate) a food additive that increases food flavor 10-fold.

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Fortunately, we do not have to use MSG to enhance flavors! We now know that foods high in glutamates and inosinates hold the key to unlocking flavors from any dish; use these foods and you’ll naturally increase flavor. Once you encorporate umami, you’ll quickly become a pro at developing flavors, and at picking the best items from any restaurant menu! Seek out the umami and it’s sure to be a winner.

Umami-Rich Foods

Seafoods

  • Seaweeds, particularly kombu
  • Fish sauce
  • Anchovies/Anchovy paste
  • Dried fish flakes (bonito flakes)
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Tuna
  • Shrimp
  • Oysters
  • Shellfish

Meats

  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • Lamb

Vegetables

  • Asparagus
  • Tomatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Onion
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Carrots

Other Foods

  • Aged cheese
  • Cured meats
  • Soybeans and miso
  • Butter
  • Green tea
  • Soy sauce
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Savory herbs like rosemary and thyme

Creating the “Umami Bomb”

The way foods are cooked can also enhance their umami. Roasting, broiling, caramelizing and curing are great ways to activate the umami compounds. By using multiple layers of umami with cooking techniques that bring it out, anyone can create rich and totally satisfying dishes, just like a professional chef.

Ever wonder why your Thai curry or miso soup doesn’t taste like the restaurant’s? It’s umami. And it’s amazing how just a little of it can turn a dish from satisfactory to mind-blowing.

For European and American food, serve entrees with roasted sweet potatoes, tomatoes and caramelized onions. Add:

  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Anchovy paste
  • Cured meat
  • Cheese

For Asian food, serve entrees with sauteed Asian cabbage or shiitake mushrooms. Add:

  • Soy sauce
  • Kombu seaweed
  • Fish sauce
  • Miso

Desserts can also have umami. Try dates or fresh figs stuffed with rosemary scented mascarpone cheese or crème fraiche.

Article References:

1. Umami Information Center. What Is Umami? 2009.

2. Encyclopedia Britannica. Kikunae Ikeda. 2009.

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