Trying to understand umami

 Umami dishes

We recently just made our first batch of dashi - the Japanese soup stock made with kombu (dried kelp) - one of the purest sources of umami . So it was fortuitous that one of our readers, Ken, brought our attention to this recent Wall Street Journal article, Understanding Umami. It's relatively easy to understand the other four taste senses - bitter, salty, sweet, and sour - but umami, the fifth taste, is a slippery concept, especially to Western culture. At best, it can be described as a long-lasting meaty taste (though it certainly doesn't have to be meat- based) that causes your mouth to water and creates a coating sensation on the tongue.

As the article explains, umami is tricky to understand becomes it has many different flavor profiles:

"In the West, umami is found in the browning reactions that lend their flavor to roasted meats, crusty bread and rich stocks, as well as the processes of aging cheese, curing meat or drying mushrooms. In Asia, umami is more commonly created by salting or fermenting fish or vegetables to create foods such as fish sauce, belacan or kimchi. What distinguishes umami in Japanese cuisine is the variety of forms it takes, along with its clarity of flavor."

And it can be found in a variety of ingredients, "kombu, miso, tamari, soy sauce, green tea and dozens of other staples, the sheer number of sources of umami in Japanese cuisine is staggering."

And the ingredients in that list, as well as the high umami ingredients more familiar to Western palates (anchovies, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots, Parmesan cheese among others), provide both promise and challenges to the chef. They'll boost flavor, but how best to use them?

It'll take some exploration and research, but you can start by taking a look at these results from a search of the EYB library of recipes that include "umami" in their name. Or you can start where we did, with Alton Brown's dashi and miso soup recipes, found in Good Eats 3: The Later Years.

Photo by James Jyu


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