Monday, April 28, 2008

Do You Know Where Your Umami Is?

We've all gone through this, a craving for something sweet, salty or sour. Maybe even something that's *bad* for you, such as fried or high in fat. But what about craving for umami? Yes, umami. I have cravings for it all the time. You might know it as wanting something that's savory, hearty, full in flavor. Or that missing element of "something but can't put your finger on it" when you taste a dish. It's all about the umami. There are many sites dedicated to this proposed "5th" basic taste. Just do a quick google and you'll see. Even the Culinary Institute of American offers some insight to this "5th" taste.

I grew up with umami, or xiāng wèi, the Chinese equivalent of umami. My Grandmother was the one who introduced me to the concept of xiāng wèi, which can be translated literally as fragrant taste (and I'm sure someone's going to argue with me on the translation). But I never fully understood it until much into my adult life. I've referred to the "umami need" as "I want something tasty" or the elusive "I want something satisfying but I don't know what."

Umami is used to describe the savory taste caused by glutamate that naturally occurs in many foods. It can be found in meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. It doesn't have a very discernable taste but it enhances other flavors, making things taste more yummy. You can detect umami in ripe tomatoes (not the bland tasteless kind you often find in stores), Parmesan cheese, cured ham, mushrooms, meat and fish. Asian cultures have been using soy sauce in this aspect for decades. You may also know glutamate as MSG. Before you start flaming, I'm not suggesting putting MSG in every dish. If you're not allergic to MSG, by all means, add away. But if you're like thousands of people who can't eat MSG, there is another way. Use foods that contain natural glutamate.

I'm certainly not going to bore you with techniques considering all the multitudinous sites on the Internet dedicated to this topic. But I will leave you with one thought. Next time you're trying a new recipe or ordering a new dish, and it just doesn't taste that good or you feel something is missing. Maybe all it needs is a little umami.

Have a wonderful week. Now go and eat well (or is that savory?).

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