The current buzz-word in high-end food circles these days is “Umami”. It’s a Japanese-coined word based on “Umai”, meaning “tasty” (although as a kid I’d say “Umeh”, which is the slang version of “Umai”…most men would also say “Umeh” as well…as a girl or lady, I’d actually say “Oh-iishii”, which means delicious/tastes good).
On Wikipedia it is described as the 5th category of taste: a sort of savoury taste that is very satisfying to the taste-buds, the special something that gives food a particular depth of flavour:
I like to think of it in a similar way to a great perfume. You have top/head notes, middle/heart notes and bottom/base notes in a great perfume:
The head notes are the first impressions – the very first thing you smell when you come across that perfume; with food, this is the first ingredient or mixture that you smell when you first come across it, usually light and carried over the top of everything else, but you might not necessarily be able to taste it. It’s something you smell but the taste is imperceptible, like fresh flat-leaf parsley which gets lost amidst the main body of food.
The heart notes create the main course of the perfume; for food, this would be the main body of food that is the most dominant and which will give you the main taste you’re after.
The base notes in a fragrance carry everything else and is the essence that survives the longest – in a great perfume, the base note is the last bit of fragrance you can still smell 12 hours or more after you’ve sprayed it on. It provides depth to the perfume, and you often can’t perceive it very well on the initial spritz, but it’s what creates the background to the rest of the scent. In food, you might occasionally have had great food which lies imperceptibly in the background, giving something mellow and deep to the flavour.
It’s those base notes, those essences and foods that set the scene or create the background to the main body of the food but that cannot be traced back to a single ingredient: that is umami.
So what foods naturally have and create umami?
According to the Wikipedia article, there are certain foods that contain more umami than others, such as mushrooms, celery, cured meats and fermented or aged products such as cheeses and soy sauce. I can testify straight away to celery having a lot of umami – just try making a basic Italian battuto/soffritto: chop up some onions and carrots, then start sautéing the onion first for a few minutes until they are just starting to golden, then add the carrots and sauté another minute or so. Have a taste – the onion provides a bit of a background to the flavour of the carrots. Now chop up a stick of celery and add that to the mix – sauté until the celery is completely cooked through and clear. Have a taste now – the celery should have added even more of a savoury background flavour which you can’t distinguish from the onion, and the carrots will probably have imparted some flavour to the background too.
Also consider various Italian recipes that use parmesan – as you’re probably aware, it’s a very strong flavour that in England is sprinkled over anything Italian regardless of whether it matches or not. One basic soup which sounds a bit plain is onion and potato soup: slice thinly some 350g onions and 500g potatoes and sauté in a hot (and large) casserole with olive oil and butter. Once it’s all golden brown, add good beef stock to the pot so that there’s a centimetre of stock over the top of the mix and let it simmer for an hour. Have a taste – it’s fine with the buttered onions and potato flavours imparted as the background, but it’s lacking. Grate as much parmesan as you dare into it, stir it and add more, and have another taste – a completely new depth to the broth comes through, it’s almost transformed into something pretty damn good! My partner refers to this soup as “crack soup”, because it’s as good and addictive as, um, well, you know.
Umami being the buzz-word at the moment, there are other chefs and food connoisseurs who have fallen in love with this bottle called Red Boat Fish Sauce:
This sauce sounds pretty amazing – “pure umami in a bottle”: add it to any fish-based dish and you’ll never have to worry about your cooking again. It slightly irks me that some chefs openly admit to using this sauce though, as I would naively hope that all chefs would naturally understand and know how to create these flavours already if I’m going to be paying top dollar for their services (otherwise if they’re only going to do the same job I can do for a fraction of the price, I’d rather have the pleasure of making it myself!). But that’s just the naive, wishful side of me talking – chefs are busy people too, after all!
So, with all this hype about umami, is it worth pursuing for its own ends?
The way I see it – not necessarily. The thing is that there are varying levels of umami in most foods, and it’s the combination of foods that creates your meal, like a good perfume having many layers and varying depths to it, or an impressionistic painting that sets a scene. It’s one of those things that can be manufactured to Heston Blumenthal precision, if that’s your thing, or you can just cook with ingredients that has it, but the aim being to enjoy cooking and having some time to yourself.
But it’s probably worth having a bottle of Red Boat, just in case you have a mini-disaster with a fish dish of the “it’s too bland” variety.
Whatever you decide to make for yourself or your family, I hope that you enjoy it and have a little fun in doing it.
By the way, totally unrelated news, but apparently it’s National Cupcake Week in the UK – now that is something worth celebrating I think! Anyone thinking of doing anything? I’m going to leaf through some recipes and see what I can find…
Love the perfume analogy and the great list of umami rich foods that we can all relate to. I’m sharing this with all my foodie friends. Great post!