As I recall, I encountered the idea of umami a few years ago, but I didn’t pay much attention because I assumed that it was not for real. But this week, while having an email conversation with a friend (thanks, Dean) about my post on Scotch broth, I realized that the idea of umami as a “fifth taste” is very real. The concept of umami also explains some major mysteries in the kitchen.
First, so that I don’t have to repeat the basics about what umami is and what kind of foods contain it, here are links to a couple of articles. The first is the Wikipedia article, and the second is a Wall Street Journal article from 2007.
Aha! Now I know why that sneaky, barely noticeable dash of ketchup wakes up certain dishes. Now I know why I can’t reproduce Scotch broth without sheep bones. Now I understand why it’s difficult to reproduce Asian cooking at home. Now I know why I look longingly at that bottle of tamari (soy sauce) in the refrigerator door but avert my eyes for fear of adding too much salt. Now I understand why miso is so addictive.
And now that we understand umami, what are we going to do about it, especially those of us who tend toward vegetarianism?
For one, it may be time to rethink our demonization of MSG (monosodium glutamate). Though the chemical name sounds scary, it’s actually made from natural fermentation, and it seems that no studies have confirmed its bad rap. So I think that on my next trip to Whole Foods, I’ll see if they carry some form of MSG that is guaranteed to be naturally fermented rather than synthesized. And though I’m no great fan of the taste of seaweed, I also will get some kombu and see what I can do with it.
The theory of umami also explains a mystery about the British Isles that I’ve puzzled over for a long time. Why does English and Welsh cooking tend to be so bland and Irish and Scottish cooking so savory? Solution: The Irish understand umami — in particular the arts of broth-making and sauce-making. Umami probably has to do with why Christopher Kimball, editor of Cook’s Illustrated, says that cooking isn’t easy. You can get cooking 99 percent right, but without that tiny kick of umami, food fails to be thrilling.