Some foods, when tasted, can be easily distinctly identified either as sweet, salty, sour or bitter.
However, some excellent tasting food is harder to describe. They are simply robust and delicious and leave you wanting more. And this is how we relate to the last element of taste, the Umami.
Umami has been around for some time, and it is what we appreciate as the savouriness of food. It’s what imparts the earthy, meaty flavour to a dish. It is naturally occurring in many food ingredients such as meat broths, tomato sauce, soy sauce, mushrooms or parmesan cheese, and other fermented foods.
However, it was only scientifically identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, which he then developed as a food additive called Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).
What does Umami do?
All of the five basic tastes have a purpose in helping us distinguish if food is safe to eat or gauge its quality. For example, sweetness informs us of the carbohydrate content, which provides energy when ingested; bitterness informs us that a food item can be unsafe to eat. In the case of Umami, it informs us of the food’s protein content which helps our body build and repair muscles and bones.
Umami is what we perceive as the taste of glutamate, an amino acid that is one of the building blocks of protein.
The glutamate in foods such as walnuts, grapes, broccoli, tomatoes, and protein-rich food, including but not limited to aged cheeses, mushrooms, green tea, anchovies etc., when eaten, binds to the receptors on taste buds, causing a savoury taste in your mouth. Your body creates more saliva and digestive juices to help you digest the proteins that the Umami alerted you to.
Umami is enhanced in combination with salt.
Umami is commonly perceived as salt, but it provides a more robust and depth in flavour. Not every glutamate produces a savoury-like taste sensation, but it can be enhanced in combination with sodium. Chefs know that tomatoes exhibit a more robust taste after adding salt.
Boost the Umami flavour using ingredients
Chefs use Umami to balance flavour when something seems to be missing or doesn’t seem complete. Western cuisines use savoury and salty sauces such as tomato sauces and ketchup, while East and Southeast Asian cuisines refer to soy sauce and fish sauce.
Meat is a savoury food in its own right, but there are various ways to boost that savoriness that merely adding more salt won’t do. Here are just some condiments and ingredients that are bursting with umami goodness.
The one that started it all. Dashi is a seaweed-based stock that is the embodiment of Umami. It is what the Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda was studying when he identified what Umami was.
Soy sauce is made through the lengthy curing and fermenting process of soya beans and adds saltiness to a dish.
Fish is fermented with water and salt for quite some time until a rich, caramel-coloured condiment is born. Fish sauce imparts an umami flavour without the fishiness.
Miso is a salty seasoning made from fermented soybeans with koji. ( cooked rice and soya beans) and plays a massive role in making miso soup. Even a spoonful of miso can add tons of flavour to other dishes.
Monosodium Glutamate is a sodium salt of glutamic acid (an α-amino acid) sprinkled on dishes to achieve a more savoury flavour. However, it has been involved in controversies previously called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, now called “MSG Symptom Complex”, where MSG is attributed to symptoms such as headache and chest pain, among others. However, there is no direct proof of this. It’s important to remember that adverse reactions manifested only when MSG was consumed on a nearly empty stomach in virtually every study. When paired with enough food, symptoms virtually vanished.
Tomatoes are rich in glutamic acid. And when concentrated on a paste, they pack amazing flavour-boosting punch.
Anchovies are small, oily fish members of the Engraulidae family, commonly found in the Mediterranean. Anchovies are known for their distinct and aggressive, umami-rich flavour. This specific flavour results from the curing process in which the small fish are dried in salt. The dried anchovies are then packed in tins with olive oil.
Worcestershire combines many sweet and savoury items, including malt vinegar, molasses, sugar, anchovies, onions, and tamarind.
Boost the Umami Flavour through various methods
At times, it can be developed through the following methods :
Slow cooking allows layers of flavours to build and create fork-tender dishes.
Some food items such as soy sauce, miso and fish sauce gain their umami flavour due to fermentation. The protein contents of a food ingredient are broken down into amino acids, which yield a large amount of glutamic acid. It is interesting to note that not all fermented foods bring in that “umami” appeal. Fermented foods such as yogurt, sourdough, kombucha, and sauerkraut hold more of a sour taste with no umami.
Curing meats helps preserve them as their protein is broken down. Using cured meats such as bacon, cold cuts, and sausages will boost the umami flavour of a dish.
The cheese develops a more potent flavour as it ripens and matures. As cheese ages, its protein content is broken down, releasing amino acids, thus robust umami taste.
Umami is the new kid on the block in the realm of tastemaking. This flavour is harder to immediately identify and is usually the secret ingredient that completes a dish. Chefs understand that Umami can be achieved in various ways and can be added to a dish using various ingredients. And when your chefs deliver umami flavour-filled dish after dish, you are helping to ensure a quality dining experience for your guests and customers.
That’s it for this week.
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Ciao for now,