Umami is the flavor mommy
By Kim Dannies
Japanese cuisine is among the most stunning and flavorful in the world. Asian chefs use the word umami (pronounced “oou-mommy”) to describe foods that are especially savory and delicious. It is thanks to the work of Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who first discovered that the amino acid glutamic was responsible for the umami taste in seaweed.
For centuries food tastes were categorized as either sweet, sour, salty or bitter, and it wasn’t until 1908 that Dr. Ikeda identified the fifth flavor, umami. The glutamates common in protein-rich foods, ripe tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, cured ham, soy sauce, beef, oily fish, seaweed and mushrooms are some of the curators of this earthy essence. The taste of umami itself is subtle, yet it blends well with other tastes, expanding the flavors that make a dish more delicious.
Taste, smell, color, temperature, freshness and appearance all combine to create the quality of a food’s flavor. We immediately recognize the taste of sweet when we bite into a cookie or the sour pucker from a plump apple, but most palates don’t immediately identify the quality of umami. Newborn babies naturally detest sour and bitter flavors and adore the sweet. But breastfed babies become instant experts on the wonders of umami and experience its magic every time they suckle their mother’s breast milk, a protein source naturally rich in glutamates. (These babes are thinking “oou mommy, that’s so good” and they don’t care why.)
As cooks and eaters we already possess a natural instinct for aligning umami-rich ingredients. Traditional food pairings have endured for a reason — think tomato sauce sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, or grilled beef with mushrooms sautéed in butter. Next time you prepare a recipe, before you decide to pare down the ingredient list or substitute items, consider this: Are you cheating your cuisine out of a layer of umami, and therefore extra flavor?
Umami has four roles in the kitchen to help cooks create more flavors on the plate:
1. Flavor partner: Add umami-rich mushrooms, or ham, and fortified wine to savory dishes.
2. Flavor builder: Use a tomato base, such as ketchup, and add soy, wasabi, fish sauce, brown sugar or horseradish combinations to layer additional flavors.
3. Flavor balancer: Blend anchovies with mayo and raw garlic to soothe the bitter garlic and tame the unctuous mayonnaise.
4. Flavor catalyst: In a roasted fish dish umami is the backbone flavor, yet it is nimble enough to welcome drops of lemon juice and pinches of salt to expand its primary flavor.
It may be known as “the fifth flavor,” but really, after exploring umami’s epic influence on taste, I’m thinking it is the mother of all flavors.
Kim Dannies is a graduate of La Varenne Cooking School in France. She lives in Williston with her husband, Jeff; they have three college-aged daughters. For archived Everyday Gourmet columns go to kimdannies.com.