By Cinda Chavich
I first learned about umami while writing a wine column for a daily newspaper. Swishing a newly vinted Syrah or Cabernet across my palate, I’d tease out every nuance in the wine, looking for the classic sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavours, along with the elusive “fifth flavour” — umami.
Umami is described as a rich, savoury, meaty taste, one you might usually find in a rare steak, an earthy mushroom, an aged cheese, or almost any fermented food. In wine, that savoury note is a result of fermenting on the grape skins or the yeasty lees, so it’s often a big red or a vintage champagne that displays a subtle note of umami.
Umami was once a fairly esoteric concept in the food and wine world, but “the fifth” is having a moment, the darling of chefs and marketers, and a word that has become synonymous with flavour.
And even if most people can’t put their finger on the exact taste of elusive umami, thanks to the popularity of vegan diets, wild fermented kombucha and kimchi, artisan cheese and charcuterie, umami is now on everyone’s lips.
UMAMI OR MSG?
The savoury flavour known as umami comes from the glutamic acids that occur naturally in many foods, including mushrooms, yeast and seaweed, and they are concentrated in others through aging, drying and fermentation.
Sweet, sour, bitter, salty and glutamate (umami) receptors are not only spread across the entire tongue, but they are even found in your stomach.
Umami tames bitterness and enhances all other flavours, so when umami is present in food, your brain says, “Yum!”
Named for the Japanese word umai (meaning delicious taste), umami was first identified as “the fifth flavour” in 1908 by chemist Kikunae Ikeda in Tokyo, who found glutamates, derived from kelp, added delicious depth to dashi broth. His discovery led to isolating those glutamic acids and creating monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavour-enhancing ingredient that would become ubiquitous in processed foods and seasonings.
Ironically, even as we now seek umami-rich foods for their flavour-boosting properties, MSG is often avoided. Though there is little scientific proof that MSG is harmful, it has become such a polarizing ingredient that many food companies have removed MSG from their products, substituting glutamate-rich alternatives, including autolyzed yeast, textured vegetable protein, yeast extract, glutamic acid, gelatin, soy protein isolate and soy extracts (essentially, MSG from natural sources, perceived identically by our brains).
It’s also interesting to note that many “healthy” low-salt products have added glutamates to compensate for the flavour lost when sodium is reduced.
BUILDING UMAMI IN THE KITCHEN
Cooks around the world have always used umami-rich ingredients in their recipes, even if they didn’t know the scientific reason for the delicious synergies.
It’s the umami flavour in aged Parmesan cheese, tomato paste and anchovies that enhances traditional Italian dishes, and the sautéed mushrooms that add an extra boost of umami to a grilled steak. Fermented soybean miso and kelp make classic miso soup a satisfying sip. And a splash of Vietnamese fish sauce is a chef’s secret hack to lift the flavour of almost any sauce, stew or soup.
Dried shiitake mushrooms and seaweed are at the top of the scoreboard when it comes to natural levels of umami. Ripening, aging, curing and drying concentrates umami too, whether you’re talking about salami, dry-aged beef or salted cod and bonito flakes.
There’s concentrated umami in many fermented foods, from soy sauce to sauerkraut. Worcestershire gets its umami from fermented vegetables and anchovies.
Lauren Isherwood and Nick Baingo are the makers of a new local product called Umami Bomb, a spicy vegan condiment that relies on puréed shiitake mushrooms, tamari and tomato paste for its concentrated hit of umami.
It was a switch to a vegan diet that inspired the couple to create their punchy chili oil, seeking the savoury note they were missing without meat. They use it as a dip for dumplings, toss it with noodles or any vegetable — from sautéed shishito peppers and green beans to crispy air fryer cauliflower wings.
“We recommend a generous tablespoon (or two) per serving and to add it after cooking,” Isherwood says, noting the sauce now comes in four spicy variations.
“It is extremely flavourful and adds umami to any dish.”
A JAPANESE ESSENTIAL
Though it was dashi that first sent a Japanese chemist on a quest to understand umami, it wasn’t until the 1980s that western scientists delved deeper into glutamate’s unique properties, and only in recent years have chefs learned how to harness the power of umami.
“The presence of umami has a way of waking up your mouth,” says Ken Nakano, executive chef at the Inn at Laurel Point. “It’s a flavour that I’ve always loved.”
Chef Nakano says umami-rich ingredients don’t need to dominate a dish, but their natural glutamates add a subtle “depth of flavour.” Whether it’s sake kasu (the lees from sake making), koji, miso, soy sauce or kimchi, fermented ingredients contain umami and are “one of the building blocks” to seasoning a balanced dish, he says.
At Aura, the hotel’s waterfront restaurant, most dishes on the menu include an element of umami, whether it’s the beef braised in dashi broth or smoked duck cured with shio koji and served alongside a preserved rhubarb and purple shiso umeboshi.
“That’s a double hit of umami,” he says, pointing to other umami-rich combinations, including his kimchi-braised short ribs or seafood risotto flavoured with dried shrimp.
“We’re looking into Japanese and Asian ingredients, but the common thread is umami — we rely on it for flavour.”
On his latest menu, Nakano serves a fresh tomato salad with dashi vinaigrette and makes a miso butter yuzu kosho sauce, “full of umami,” for spot prawns.
Using Japanese and Korean ingredients is an easy way to add umami to your daily dinners too, with a little sprinkling of nori furikake seasoning or a swirl of miso in your mayo.
Umami-rich nutritional yeast (a.k.a. “nooch”) is having a moment of its own.
What a generation of hippies knew in the 1970s has come full circle today — nutritional yeast is a vegan ingredient that tastes a lot like cheese, and it’s good for you too.
Nutritional yeast is a dried, inactivated form of brewer’s yeast, rich in protein, B vitamins and umami. You can buy it in the bulk bins at your local grocer and use it to add a Parmesan-like flavour to vegan mac and cheese, Caesar salads or a plate of pasta.
The Cultured Nut creates its vegan “cheez” slices and spreads from cashews, chickpea miso and a cheesy shot of nutritional yeast. Island-made Yeshi salad dressings utilize nutritional yeast in their recipes too. And NoochPOP is a tasty popcorn snack from Vancouver, flavoured with nutritional yeast.
UMAMI = FLAVOUR
So next time you’re wondering why that Thai curry is so more-ish, think about umami.
Try the triple whammy of umami in the Umami Fries at Part and Parcel, dusted with a mushroom and seaweed powder and served with anchovy mayo for dipping. Taste the umami in the golden, salt-cured duck egg yolks shaved over spinach salad at Wild Mountain Food + Drink. Or add umami to your favourite takeout dish at Foo with a side of kimchi.
And plan to add more mouthwatering umami to your everyday meals — your taste buds will come alive!
Nooch is an easy way to enhance the flavour of foods, especially when you need a cheesy note in a vegan dish. Sprinkle nutritional yeast on buttered popcorn, add it to cashew “cheese” sauce, dust it over a Caesar salad or a plate of pasta.
Kombu (dried kelp) adds umami to dashi broth and is in nori furikake, a Japanese seasoning of toasted sesame seeds, seaweed and chilies. Shake it over your popcorn or noodle bowl — it even adds a tasty finishing touch to a pizza or a grilled cheese sandwich.
Get more savoury umami flavour with hard cheeses of all kinds — a shower of grated Parmesan or a bit of old cheddar is a quick way to add umami to a dish.
Fish sauce (nam pla) gets its umami from fermented fish and is an important flavour in Vietnamese and Thai cuisines. A dash invisibly lifts the flavour of any soup, tomato sauce or gravy.
Like fish sauce, dried anchovies add umami. Anchovies are the base of Worcestershire sauce, and other dried fish, from Asian shrimp paste to Italian bottarga (dried fish eggs), provide natural umami too.
When you have miso, Korean red pepper paste, soybean paste, soy sauce, kimchi or sauerkraut in your pantry, you have instant umami to enhance soups, sauces, dressings and stir-fries.
Tomatoes have umami, especially when they’re cooked down into sauces. Add a spoonful of tomato paste to add umami to soups and sauces. Make a Caesar cocktail with umami-rich Clamato and Worcestershire sauce.
Mushrooms are a natural source of umami, and its concentrated when they’re dried. Pulverize dried mushrooms to a powder in a blender to use as a seasoning or rub for meats. Add a splash of soy sauce to sautéed mushrooms or mushroom soup to up the umami.
BUCKWHEAT NOODLES WITH MUSHROOMS AND PEAS
The makers of Umami Bomb shared this idea for a simple noodle dish made with sautéed mushrooms and frozen peas. It’s an adaptable starting point for a weekday meal. Feel free to add other vegetables, from bell peppers and green onions to bok choy or snow peas.
• 4 oz. dried soba noodles (or udon)
• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
• 2 to 3 cups sliced shiitake or oyster mushrooms
• 1 to 2 tablespoons tamari (soy sauce)
• 1/2 cup frozen peas
• 1 to 2 tablespoons Umami Bomb sauce
Cook the noodles according to the instructions on the package. Drain and rinse. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat, and sauté the mushrooms until they brown and start to release their moisture.
Add a tablespoon or two of tamari to the mushrooms and cook for a minute or two until the tamari is absorbed. (If you want to add additional vegetables, add to mushrooms and sauté for a few more minutes.)
Defrost the frozen peas in the microwave. Drain and set aside.
Add the noodles and peas to the mushrooms in the warm pan. Stir in a big tablespoon of Umami Bomb and heat through. Add more Umami Bomb to taste. Divide between two deep bowls to serve.
Use this creamy dressing for kale or cabbage salads or grains like quinoa, brown rice or wheat berries. It keeps in the refrigerator for a week.
• 1 clove garlic, chopped
• 1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes
• 3 tablespoons tamari (Japanese soy sauce)
• 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
• 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
• 2 tablespoons water
• 1/2 cup olive oil
In a blender, combine the garlic, nutritional yeast, tamari, mustard, vinegar and water. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil to form an emulsified dressing. Add a little more oil to thin the dressing to pouring consistency, if needed. Makes about 1/2 cup.
Use a blender or spice grinder to pulverize dried shiitake mushrooms to a powder for this seasoning to sprinkle on anything from scrambled eggs to popcorn or to use as a rub on meats before grilling.
• 1/2 cup dried shiitake mushroom powder
• 2 teaspoons onion powder
• 1 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
• 1 teaspoon mustard powder
• salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine ingredients in spice grinder and whirl. Store in a jar in a cool, dark place. Makes just over 1/2 cup seasoning.
LOBSTER WITH MISO YUZU KOSHO SAUCE
Chef Ken Nakano created this umami-rich miso butter to brush over grilled spot prawns, but he also recommends lobster tails (or halibut) cooked “en papillote” — baked in a parchment or foil packet — to keep the fish tender and juicy. Look for yuzu kosho (Japanese chili paste), yuzu juice and other Japanese ingredients at Fujiya and Junmai Nama sake from Artisan SakeMaker in Vancouver.
• 4 Atlantic lobster tails
Spicy Garlic Miso Butter:
• 4 tablespoons white miso
• 4 tablespoons soft butter
• 1 tablespoon yuzu kosho
• 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
• 4 tablespoons Junmai Nama sake
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce (Kikkoman)
• 1 tablespoon mirin
• salt to taste
• fresh lime or yuzu juice to taste
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
In a small saucepan, combine the white miso, butter, yuzu kosho and garlic and warm over low heat. Whisk in the sake, soy sauce and mirin to incorporate ingredients and create a smooth sauce. Leave on low heat for 10 minutes to allow the flavours to develop, but do not boil. Season with salt to taste, and add a squeeze of lime juice or yuzu.
Use kitchen shears to cut along both sides of the soft base of the lobster shell, then peel the shell away from the raw meat. Coat each lobster tail generously with the sauce. Place each portion on a piece of foil or parchment and fold over to enclose, crimping the edges to create a tight seal. Place packages on a sheetpan and roast in the preheated oven for approximately 2 to 3 minutes per ounce.
Carefully cut packages open to release steam and serve.
NOTE: This sauce creates a beautiful glaze when brushed over grilled prawns or halibut.
UMAMI BURGERS WITH MISO MAYO
When you add minced mushrooms to your ground beef mixture, then top grilled burgers with sautéed mushrooms and miso-infused mayo, its pure umami on a bun.
• 1 pound brown or portobello mushrooms, divided
• 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
• 1 medium onion or 3 shallots, minced, divided
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 pound lean ground beef
• salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 2 tablespoons butter
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
• 4 burger buns
• 1/4 cup low-fat mayonnaise
• 2 teaspoons white miso
Slice half of the mushrooms and set aside.
Place remaining mushrooms into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat and sauté chopped mushrooms, half of the minced onion and half of the minced garlic together until starting to brown. Transfer to a bowl and cool, then mix in the ground beef, using your hands to combine well. Season with salt and pepper. Form mixture into four patties. Refrigerate patties at least one hour.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil with the butter and sauté the sliced mushrooms with the remaining onion and garlic, seasoning with salt. When the mushrooms are starting to brown, add the soy sauce and cook until absorbed. Set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the mayo and miso.
Grill the burgers on medium-high heat for about 5 minutes per side, until cooked through. Slice buns and toast on the grill.
Serve burgers on toasted buns, topped with miso mayo and sautéed sliced mushrooms.