Not only is it fun to say, umami is the delectable taste that gives savory food its addicting and satiating qualities. When you taste umami, it's actually because your taste receptors pick up on the amino acids (mostly glutamate) and the nucleotides (mostly guanosine and inosine) in food. Yum... lol
According to Becky Selengut's book How to Taste, the savory umami taste is found in foods that are protein-rich, cured, fermented, fungal and from the sea. This includes meat and cured meats, miso, fermented fish, mushrooms (especially dried shiitake mushrooms), sun-dried tomatoes, tomato paste (add a tbs to a tray of roasted veggies or to soups & dips!), ketchup, Parmesan and blue cheese (and use the hard rind of the cheese in soups!), anchovies, fish sauce (try it - it's not just for Asian food!), soy sauce, Vegemite & Marmite (what?), nutritional yeast seaweed and shellfish. Umami is also found in some less-obvious foods such as carrots, potatoes, cabbage, spinach, celery and even green tea!
Umami-rich foods are also called "flavor enhancers". So when should umami be added to a dish?
- If you're needing a little je ne sais quoi to your food, but you've already tried adding salt, acid, sweet, bitter and fat to balance the dish, add umami.
- If you want more "mouthfeel" to the dish, add umami.
- If you're trying to keep your food low-sodium, add umami to help make food taste saltier without increasing the sodium as much.
- If you're cooking vegetarian/vegan food and you want it to taste more "meaty", add vegetarian foods rich in umami.
PUTTING UMAMI TO THE TEST - EXPERIMENT TIME!
I made the Sweet Potato Soup with Chile and Lemongrass from How to Taste and followed Becky's experiment.
First, I heated virgin coconut oil in a pot then added one diced onion until soft then added some ginger. In a cheesecloth, I tied up lemongrass stalks, serrano chiles, lime leaves and sliced galangal. I put that in the pot with cubed sweet potato and a quart of water. After bringing this concoction to a boil and simmering for 30 minutes, I blended it with an immersion blender and hit it with a whole lime's worth of its juices. Now it was ready for the first taste test.
The soup tasted sweet and with tiny kick of heat at the back of my throat. But, that's pretty much it. I could probably eat the entire pot of soup and still be hungry. It is missing something savory.
Then I added about a teaspoon of fine sea salt, and all the flavors shined through the soup. It's a bit sweeter than the first test. I can taste even more of the lime, ginger, galangal and lemongrass.
Finally I added a tbs of fish sauce - now we are talking! Now it is filling and tastes like a full meal, not just a random sweet/spicy side dish. The soup tastes so refreshing from the lime/ginger/lemongrass. It's also so comforting from the sweet potato and it is complex because of the heat of the chiles and galangal. And the fish sauce really wrapped it all together in a salty/umami/sweet/spicy/refreshingly acidic masterpiece. 10 out of 10 would make again. Actually, I'm actually writing this the day after I conducted our little kitchen experiment and I literally just finished cooking another batch of this soup! In the name of science, of course... :p