Umami is the so-called "fifth taste," and given scientists only proved its existence in this century, umami can also be considered the most elusive. To unlock that savory umami taste, you have to combine flavors — but which ones? Start with foods rich in glutamates.
Now glutamates sometimes get a bad rap because of the notoriety of the food additive, monosodium glutamate, or MSG. But there are foods naturally rich in this protein-building amino acid, and they live up to the meaning of umami, a Japanese word roughly translated as "delicious."
"As a cook, you want to balance foods. We're always looking for a little umami," said Christopher Prosperi, chef-owner of Metro Bis restaurant in Simsbury, Conn. Umami, he adds, is why certain dishes — like the "Silver Palate Cookbook's" iconic chicken Marbella with its lively mix of capers, olives and prunes — make "our mouths water."
"We can't get enough of it," Prosperi said.
Indeed. That umami hunger is why one of the hot "new" ingredients surfacing in restaurant kitchens is koji, which is used traditionally in Japan to make soy sauce, sake, miso and other fermented food products. Prepared koji, available at a growing number of Asian markets, is ready to be spooned into all sorts of recipes. Generally, though, getting that umami fix isn't that easy — nor is it as easy, say, as sparking foods with a spritz of lemon.
"To work its magic, umami needs to be in the company of other ingredients," writes Michael Pollan, the influential food writer of his new book, "Cooked." "A bit like salt, glutamate seems to italicize the taste of foods, but unlike salt, it doesn't have an instantly recognizable taste of its own."
Prosperi agrees that a combination of flavors is needed to unlock umami. But he doesn't go reaching for a shaker of MSG. He goes instead to his larder for glutamate-laden vegetables like tomatoes and mushrooms, plus cheeses, fish, meat — even seaweed.
"We use dashi all the time for soups and pan sauces," he said, referring to the Japanese stock made from kombu, a type of seaweed.
Dashi's versatility is also endorsed by Elizabeth Andoh, a cookbook author and American-born authority on Japanese cuisine.
"It can be used in anything, any style of cooking," she writes in an email from her home in Japan. "Dashi enhances any 'ethnic' flavors including standard American seasonings."
Andoh, a self-described "kombu freak," said she has nothing good to say about any artificially created flavor-enhancements — that includes MSG. "On the other hand, I extol the virtues of naturally occurring glutamate, especially in kombu."
Don't overlook what's in your larder for glutamate-rich flavor boosting. Drape some anchovies on hard-cooked eggs or a salad. Shave some Parmesan cheese atop a fresh tomato sauce, itself an ingredient loaded with glutamate. Toss bacon — a veritable umami bomb — wherever you can, from salads to sauces to side dishes.
Try these recipes, using foods naturally laden with glutamate, to capture that sought-after umami flavor.
Tomato-crimini mushroom and bacon salad
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 6 minutes
Servings: 4 side dish servings or 2 main dish servings
Note: Recipe created by Christopher Prosperi of Metro Bis restaurant in Simsbury, Conn. Serve as an entree, a side dish or a topping for grilled steak or tuna, suggests the chef.
1 package (8 ounces) crimini mushrooms
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce