The vocabulary word for today is umami.
Now don’t go getting all “low energy” on me. I really don’t want to see any of you putting your heads down on your desks and hyperventilating like this is just too hard.
U- M- A- M- I. ( Just. Sound. It. Out. )
Simply put, umami is a Japanese word that roughly translates as “delicious.”
In 1908, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered that kombu, a brown algae used for thousands of years as a soup stock base, is a rich source of a distinctive compound called glutamate. Also found naturally in a number of other foods including tomatoes and cheeses, Ikeda found that glutamate intensified a unique savory flavor in the mouth and could be extracted from food in powder form as monosodium glutamate (MSG). He named the new flavor umami.
Once Ikeda’s research findings were securely patented, commercial production of this new flavor-enhancer/creator began almost immediately with the Japanese company, Ajinomoto, producing a “MSG” powder grown from wheat gluten proteins (and later from bacteria) as a seasoning. (Today, MSG is produced by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses in a fermentation process similar to that used in making yogurt.)
In the years since Ikeda’s research, scientists have found still other umami substances– in cured skipjack tuna and shiitake mushrooms, for example. Like MSG, these substances ramp up the savory (umami) flavors of foods. When they are combined with MSG, there is an explosion of flavor in the mouth.
Finally, in 2001, the “fifth flavor” science was irrefutable. UC San Diego biologist Charles Zuker proved conclusively that there are specialized receptor cells on the human tongue that respond to MSG. Those receptors produce a unique taste and mouth feel (Ikeda’s umami) that cannot be adequately described as sweet, sour, salty or bitter–the traditional terms used to describe the variety of human taste sensations.
So, what does umami taste like?
Mellow. Just ask Garrison Keillor.
That’s what I think Keillor was talking about in those glorious For the Good Times with Barb and Jim “catchup” skits that touted ketchup’s “mellowing agents.” If you have time, take a moment to enjoy one of the classic ketchup skits from Keillor’s satirical radio show, The Prairie Home Companion, and learn for yourself about ketchup’s seductive powers. The bit is guaranteed to make you laugh, particularly if, like Jim in the skit, you are hanging on to some of those adolescent humiliations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AhBXpoqkGU
Others have described umami as “brothy,” “savory,” “creating a (pleasant) coating sensation over the tongue,” “imparting a long-lasting aftertaste.” The Umami Information Center (Yes. There is one.) describes umami’s effect this way: “Umami signals that we have consumed protein… and triggers secretion of saliva and digestive juices.”
Ikeda wasn’t the first to recognize umami’s effect on taste. Cooks have understood and applied the umami concept to their food preparation for a very long time.
The ancient Romans enjoyed a umami-rich fermented fish sauce (like modern-day anchovy paste) on their foods. The medieval Byzantines and Arabs incorporated a fermented barley sauce into their cuisines and Chinese cooks are believed to have used fermented soy and fish sauces in their kitchens as early as the 3rd Century.
Innovations in cooking ingredients and techniques are often not without controversy, however, and in the midst of MSG’s surging wave of popularity, there was a health scare in the 1960s. MSG as an additive was blamed for “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” a bad reaction reportedly experienced by some people who ate MSG-enhanced foods. According to Harold McGee’s highly-regarded On Food and Cooking, the “Chinese restaurant syndrome” theories rested on decidedly-shaky ground and toxicologists eventually exonerated MSG. McGee notes, however, that the real harm from MSG was that it was all- too-often used so heavy-handedly as to obscure rather than enhance foods’ flavors. The FDA is still hedging its bets on MSG, however, and categorizes the practice of adding MSG to foods as “generally recognized as safe.”
But, you ask, is umami really a full-fledged”fifth taste?”
Scientists and foodies have ruminated over this question for decades.
Finally, in 1982, research scientists attempted to put the matter to rest by organizing The Society for Research on Umami Taste (SRUT) and, in a 1985 symposium in Hawaii, declared umami a legitimate scientific term that “characterizes the unique taste imparted by compounds such as monosodium L-glutamate and 5′-nucleotides, inosinate and guanylate.” (One can only imagine the wild partying that must have gone on at the SRUT umami convention. I’ll bet the souvenir tee-shirts are now worth a small fortune on e-bay.)
So, how can you get your umami “fix” this Labor Day?
You need go no farther than your closest purveyor of ketchup and fries. Both contain a high number of free glutamates and, when combined, will synergistically send you into umami heaven.
Or you could make this Fresh and Wild Mushroom Stew. It’s delicious.
Happy Labor Day.
The link to the original recipe from the New York Times appears at the bottom of this post.
Ingredients: Fresh and Wild Mushroom Stew
1 1/2 lb. cultivated brown mushrooms (shiitake, cremini or portobello–I used baby bellas)
1/2 lb. pale wild mushrooms (chantrelle, King trumpet or oyster–I used oyster but I would use chantresses in a heartbeat if they were available)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion (diced)
Salt and pepper
1 t. chopped thyme
1 t. chopped sage or rosemary (I used sage)
Pinch red pepper flakes or cayenne
1 T. tomato paste
3 Small ripe tomatoes (peeled, seeded and chopped)
1 T. all-purpose flour
Heated broth (Mushroom or vegetable)
1 T. butter
3 garlic cloves (minced)
3 T. chopped parsley
Clean mushrooms and trim tough stems from mushrooms. Keeping different types of mushroom separate, slice mushrooms about 1/8 inch thick.
Dice large onion.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven and saute chopped onion over medium high heat. Season onion with salt and pepper, lower heat to medium and cook onion for about ten minutes until onion is soft and browned. Remove from pan and set aside.
Add 1 T. oil to pan and, over medium to high heat, saute brown mushrooms until they turn a little bit more brown, seasoning lightly. This will take 3-4 minutes. Lower heat a bit and add spices (thyme, sage, red pepper) and tomato paste and stir. Add chopped tomatoes and stir into spice mixture until well mixed. Cook for about one minute. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle 1 T. flour over the mixture. Stir for one minute and continue to cook for one minute more. After one minute, add reserved onions.
Add 1 C. broth to the mixture and stir until thickened (1-2 minutes). Add more broth (up to a cup more) as needed to bring sauce up to a gravy-like consistency (I did not need to add the additional broth but you might) and cook for an additional two minutes. Adjust seasonings.
When you are ready to serve, melt butter and 1 T. olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Cook just until the butter begins to brown and takes on a nutty flavor. Add wild mushrooms and salt and pepper and saute for about two more minutes. The mushrooms should be heated through, lightly cooked and slightly brown. Add garlic and parsley and stir, cooking for one more minute.
Combine brown mushroom mixture with wild mushrooms and serve in a warm serving bowl.
Serve with pasta, polenta, biscuits or over a toasted slice of sourdough bread. Garnish with chopped parsley, sliced cherry tomatoes and/or grated Asiago.
Here is the link to the original recipe: