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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The “forgotten” fifth flavour: Umami

By Bryanna Clark Grogan

Ever wondered how to make your cooking something special? I am always in pursuit of flavor, partly because I love full-bodied, savory dishes, and partly because I want to show vegans how you can make wonderfully tasty plant-based cuisine.

It was no secret in Japan or China, but only recently has the West heard about “the fifth flavor”: umami in Japanese, or xian in Chinese. (The first four accepted flavors were sweet, salty, sour and bitter.) Our tongues (through special receptors in our taste buds) can detect these five basic tastes. The other flavors we know are combinations of those basic tastes and are recognizable with the help of our sense of smell. (We have more than 300 receptor genes that, between them, account for every possible flavor known to man.)

The term umami was first popularized by the scientist Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University in 1908, but xian goes back to 3000 year-old Chinese book called the “Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine” (thus it is sometimes also called the “forgotten flavor”). Although physiologists have long known the chemical compounds that provide its taste, only recently (in this decade) have they discovered the human tongue's receptors for umami. Particular amino acids and nucleotides, produced in foods when enzymes break down their proteins (through cooking or fermentation), stimulate these receptors, which then message our brain to register the deliciously savory taste of umami.

Heston Blumenthal wrote in The Guardian:
“In the west, for years we've used fat to add richness and fullness to the food we cook. In the Far East, however - and in Japan in particular - that added richness has long been provided by foods with a high umami content, most notably kelp and konbu, the dried seaweed that is used to make that versatile and essential Japanese broth, dashi. This broth really does lend a full-ness of flavor and a meaty tone - and with none of the fattiness that comes from using butter or cream, either.

Ikeda looked at the constituents of konbu, and found that the umami character was created by the presence of glutamates. It has since been found that other substances also carry these properties, notably inosinate and nucleotides. When foods containing these were combined in the right proportions, it was found that the umami character was magnified quite substantially.”

Actually, there are studies showing that umami-tasting compounds have magnifying effects on one another—combining two umami compounds produces 8 times more flavor than you would get from a single umami compound alone! A flavor explosion!

Although difficult to put into words, umami has variously been described as “savoriness”, “deliciousness”, “meatiness”, “tastiness”, “mouth satisfaction”, “the good taste of food”, or “brothlike”. I particularly like the definition “essence of deliciousness”. “Umami can be described as intensity, what helps us determine whether we like something or not, and carries a whole constellation of physical reactions,” says Doug Frost, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine. As Seattle Post-Intelligencer food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou wrote: “Explaining umami can get a bit convoluted. But, your taste buds understand, and that's what matters.”

What plant-based foods contain umami compounds? Fermented foods such as soy sauce, miso, balsamic vinegar, and wine (which also has its own special flavor-enhancing qualities—but that’s another column!); dried shiitake or matsutake mushrooms; sea vegetables; green tea; vegetarian bouillon; tomato juice and other tomato products. Browning foods by sautéing, grilling, and caramelizing also produces umami compounds.

Umami is a powerhouse in meatless dishes, where it supplies the robust element that usually comes from meat or poultry. Try it yourself, by using deeply browned, or caramelized, onions in a vegetarian soup or stew, for instance, or in the following easy recipe, which employs Chinese ingredients containing umami compounds to produce a richly satisfying dish from what many consider to be a bland food-- tofu. The mushrooms are utterly delicious when cooked this way. An explosion of umami!

Serves 4
From my book, Authentic Chinese Cuisine for the Contemporary Kitchen.

- 12-14 oz. Oven-Fried Tofu (see below)
- 10 dried Chinese black mushrooms, soaked, stemmed, then cut in half (save soaking water)
- 2 green onions cut into 1" lengths
- 1/2 T. oil

Braising Liquid:

- 1 c. vegetarian broth
- 1/4 c. of the saved mushroom soaking water
- 1 and 1/2 T. soy sauce
- 1 tsp. vegetarian stir-fry sauce (vegetarian "oyster" sauce—Lee Kum Kee brand)
- 1/2 T. dry sherry
- 1/2 tsp. sugar

- 1/2 tsp. cornstarch dissolved in 1/2 T. cold water
- 1 tsp. Asian roasted sesame oil

Heat a large wok or heavy skillet over high heat. When hot, add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the green onions and soaked mushrooms and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the braising liquid ingredients and bring to a boil. Add the Oven-fried Tofu and let the mixture boil until it reduces by half, which takes 5-10 minutes. Add the dissolved cornstarch and stir until it thickens, then stir in the sesame oil.


Use firm tofu. Pat dry. For triangles, cut the block in half crosswise if the block is rectangular rather than square, then each half in half horizontally. Then cut each of the four resulting pieces into four triangles. For cubes, cut into 1/2-1" cubes, depending on your needs.

Place the tofu on dark oiled cookie sheets (dark sheets brown foods better) and oil the tops lightly, using an oil-spray mister or a brush). Bake at 500 degrees F, 5-7 minutes per side, or until golden and puffy. These may be frozen for future use.
Article, photo and recipe reposted with author's permission.

Thanks a lot Bryanna for one of your always fantastic gourmet recipes and for the really interesting article!
Bryanna is currently working on her next eBook, which will be about Seitan and that we cannot wait to read. Currently, she has also opened a contest to decide on the book title: the winner will recive a free copy and that is the best incentive for all of us to come up with an interesting title and drop our suggestion on her page!


Blogger Virginie said...

I've never heard about Umami before. A very interesting and useful post.

10:07 pm  
Blogger urban vegan said...

I always add a spoon of miso paste to my pasta with broccoli recipe to give it that mellow mystery:

Now I know that "mellow mystery" has a name: umami. oh my, my!

great article. is there a name for our appreciation of bland foods, as well? (If there isn't, I move to name it ourselves. I could eat tofu right out of the container.)

4:19 am  
Blogger funwithyourfood said...

that is so interesting.. I've never heard of it..

4:27 am  
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