Umami, a decidedly enigmatic quality found in certain foods, is the hottest thing in cooking. But is this trendy taste sensation the real deal?
Author Adam Baer Illustration Rodrigo Corral and Sabine Dowek
LAST JANUARY, I LOST MY ABILITY TO TASTE. That would be bad news for anyone. It’s even worse if, like me, you make a living writing about food. I had just undergone endonasal surgery, which tweaked the nerves that helped me detect flavors, and the doctors predicted that my oh-so-discerning palate would not return for a month.
Ironically, friends kept showing up with edible get-well gifts. During my recovery, I found I couldn’t taste carby snacks—the donuts and cupcakes didn’t do much for me. But after a few weeks, more complicated flavors did begin to register: pizza with parmesan cheese; shiitake mushroom and bacon quiche; soy-marinated cod. Gradually, I developed a craving for this profoundly flavorful stuff . There was a certain hard-to-define quality linking these dishes— not quite saltiness but something more nuanced, a deep savoriness. It turns out this wasn’t a gustatory illusion. With my surgery dampening the stronger taste sensations (sweet, bitter), I had finally discovered the “fifth taste”: umami.
The trendy word, which roughly translates from Japanese as “deliciousness,” wasn’t altogether new to me. I regularly watched the Food Network and couldn’t escape its onslaught of Kikkoman soy sauce ads hard-selling the term. There was even a new restaurant in my neighborhood called Umami Burger, and—as it happened—its special contained shiitake, parmesan, tomato and fancy ketchup.
Umami, which has arguably existed as long as humans and food, is having its media moment. Last year, food scientists at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center announced new research showing that humans are hardwired to detect this fifth taste and probably to crave it. Indeed, many of the world’s cuisines highlight foods rich in umami—truffles, soy sauce, tomatoes and aged cheese, for example—all of which just happen to show high levels of a naturally occurring chemical, glutamic acid.
It turns out most everyone has functional receptors that recognize glutamate. What’s more, when combined with the acids (or, more specifically, ribonucleotides) isonine and guanosine—found in fermented foods, from yeast-based bread to wine—“umami synergism” occurs, flooding the mouth with an amped-up savoriness. “If I put free glutamate in water, you would taste it, and you wouldn’t say it’s salty, sweet, sour or bitter,” Monell researcher Paul Breslin explains. “What makes it subtle, however, is that it’s not particularly appealing alone, like sweetness in candy. People usually want umami in the context of foods that contain other qualities.”
None of which would be news to the late Kikunae Ikeda, who invented the term umami a century ago and gave the world its chemical clone, monosodium glutamate (MSG), which in the days before “wholesome” and “organic” were culinary watchwords was a common ingredient in many takeout items, canned soups and other packaged foods.
“China’s best chefs still swear by MSG,” says Ming Tsai, host of PBS’s Simply Ming, who prefers to create his deeply savory dishes naturally, with wheat-free soy sauce and sake lees, for example. “There are still three white powders in the Chinese kitchen: salt, sugar and MSG.”
Though the additive has long been associated with adverse affects, including headaches, researchers have yet to prove a definitive link. “Most likely the majority of people who claim they have ‘Chinese food syndrome’ just ate a lot of heavy food high in sodium,” says Tsai, who nonetheless avoids the chemical. “That would give anyone a headache.”
Eager to learn—and, well, taste—more, one Sunday morning I show up at Providence, a restaurant on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, along with 30 other enthusiastic foodies here for a 90-minute demonstration and tasting of umami-rich dishes conducted by chef-owner Michael Cimarusti. Walking into the contemporary space, we’re presented with our own red Providence notebooks, Providence recipes and umami research printouts from something called the Umami Information Center.
Cimarusti, a bearded, easygoing New Jersey native with long curly hair, soon appears in a chef’s coat and black Japanese cook’s cap. He greets a number of the students, some of Providence’s most devoted regulars—including a well-to-do married couple in their forties, a conservatively dressed older couple and a hip thirtysomething winery owner who pulled up in a late-model Porsche—and explains that we’ll be focusing on dashi, a master broth made from kombu (edible kelp high in free glutamic acid) and dried, fermented bonito flakes (high in ribonucleotides). Dashi, he explains, cooking on a high table with a mirror above the back of his head, is the basis of Japanese cuisine, the potion that prompted Ikeda to create the word “umami.”
We’re ready to taste.
“It’s really important to get the highest-quality soy sauce you can find,” Cimarusti says, as we each pick up small plastic cups filled with light and dark soy and toss them back, sampling the compounds like wine. Cimarusti holds up a real piece of high-end petrified bonito (or katsuobushi) and then a large piece of kombu. “Do you see how when the light hits it, it has that rich green color?” he asks. “That’s what you want.”
Soon, we’re sampling bonito flake, fresh dashi and fantastically delicate sous-vide experiments with sea bass and mushrooms. The chef fields a few questions:
What’s the point of using a light soy sauce? “It’s better for dishes that require salt.” How would you describe umami? “A ‘mouth-filling’ deliciousness.” I brined cod at home last night and it tasted weird—why? “I’m not sure…”
Cimarusti is just back from Japan, where he worked with Yoshihiro Murata, a three-Michelin-star superchef who owns Kyoto’s famous Kikunoi restaurant. Murata is highly admired for his dashi, which is made with soft spring water. “You need to steep your kombu for an hour at a hundred and forty degrees for the best dashi,” Cimarusti says. “After a lot of research, Murata found he could extract the maximum amount of glutamic acid by working at this slow pace.”
We nod dutifully, taking careful notes, as Cimarusti, who grew up eating his share of red sauce, moves on to umami’s importance in other cuisines. “The dishes that are most iconic, even in our culture, are very rich in umami,” he says. “A great example is a BLT or spaghetti and meatballs—that’s like an umami bomb.”
On the way home, inspired to experiment in the kitchen, I hit a Japanese grocery store. Unable to find the precise ingredients I need to make a true high-end dashi, I pick up some MSG in a salt shaker. The next day I cook a homemade chicken mushroom soup with a little soy sauce for some friends. They lap it up—umami victory. Then we all add a touch of the MSG, and the flavors really do seem to deepen.
Tsai calls this cheating, of course, and he has a solution. “If I had to make a natural umami dust, I would take soy powder— maybe even some really fine-ground Parmigiano-Reggiano and bonito flake, which has a nice smokiness,” he says, adding that Chinese chefs have their own name for umami, one that means “lingering savoriness”: wei dao.
I’m back to tasting 100 percent now, but I have new problem: I’m looking for umami everywhere. In everything. All the time. Note to anyone inclined to invite me to a barbecue: If I ask for shiitake mushrooms and parmesan on my burger, you’ll understand. Ketchup is no longer enough.
L.A.-based writer and avid cook ADAM BAER vows never to use MSG again—unless, of course, he’s in a rush.
Makes four servings
• 1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp. Wanjashan organic soy sauce
• 2 bunches broccolini, broken into 2-inch pieces
• 1/3 cup thinly sliced garlic
• 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 2 cups sliced shiitake
• 1/2 teaspoon Korean chili flake (or red chili)
• 1/3 cup chopped preserved lemon
In a stock pot, add the soy sauce to a quart of water and bring to a boil. Parboil the broccolini until tender-crisp, about three minutes, and shock in ice bath. Dry pot. Add extra virgin olive oil on medium-high heat. Add garlic and stir until golden brown. Remove garlic and drain, leaving a little oil in pot. Sauté the shiitake. Add back garlic with chili flake, preserved lemon and blanched broccolini. Heat through. Check seasoning and serve. For added umami, sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Copyright 2009 Ming Tsai