Umami Dearest

I love the Japanese! You know why? They make everything taste so good!

I got an email from my mom not long ago, asking me if I knew where her friend could find a product called “Umami” in a tube. Some clever person has pureed tomatoes, anchovies, mushrooms, etc., and put them in a nicely designed tube and is charging an obscene amount of money for it. More power to them. “That’s a lot to pay for tomato paste,” I said when my mom asked my opinion.

In case you’ve been stuck in your cave in the past several years and haven’t heard of “umami,” it’s the “fifth taste”. In other words, it adds “savory” to the canon of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Umami was “discovered” in 1908 by the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda. It was found in konbu seaweed and dried bonito flakes — the makings of the Japanese fish stock known as dashi. Later, it was identified and synthesized into the dreaded substance, monosodium glutamate. MSG. Voila! The reason everything the Japanese do tastes so good. (Well, not the only reason. But a big part…)

Fast forward, and every chef and his foodie brother is talking umami. It’s on menus, in cookbooks… people have even put it in the name of their restaurants. The Italians and French are singing its praises, even the Germans are jumping on board. And of course, many of the things they’ve always made and cooked with — parmesan cheese, fish, mushrooms, sauerkraut — are all rich in the unique profile of amino acids and ribonucleotides known as umami. Heck, it’s found in breast milk. The taste for umami is established early!

Is “umami” real? Can you add it to your food? Should you buy a tube of umami and will that catapult you into the stratosphere of the world’s finest chefs? Ummm…

My advice? Save the money you were gonna spend on your tube of umami paste for some nice steak or a lobster. Here’s how to make an umami paste yourself — you may find it adds savory zest to your food. Or go out and get yourself some MSG:

Umami Bomb
Add a tablespoon or so to pasta sauce, soup, sandwiches, whatever… And may the fifth taste be with you.

In a small food processor, place the following:

2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
2 anchovy fillets
6 oil cured black olives, pits removed
1 tsp capers
2 tbsp olive oil

Store in a small jar in your fridge. Will keep for a month or more.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ben
    Jan 21, 2011 @ 14:56:07

    Love your circumvention of “gourmet” food stores who sell really expensive stuff to people who don’t understand the fundamentals of cooking and flavor. My mom is constantly falling for this schtick, buying jarred marinades, dressings, and expensive flavored salts. (Truffle salt being the exception of acceptable pricey flavored salts to buy.)

    PEOPLES OF THE WORLD: I beseech you, read this blog and start understanding your food. Nice job on the umami paste, Dude.


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