Monday, 16 January 2012

Searching For Umami

No, not 'your mammy', 'oomaaaahmy'.

Umami is alleged to be the fifth taste, after salt, sour, sweet and bitter, and it's a Japanese word that is variously translated as 'savoury' or 'deliciousness'. Before we go any further, I should explain that 'taste' is what we can detect with our tongues. This is augmented by many thousands of aromas that our noses can experience. It's all a bit complicated.

I've always adored 'savoury' food, and so I've been looking out for 'umami' ever since I first heard of it a bit over a year ago while reading something about molecular gastronomy.

I was given a Heston Blumenthal book and DVD for my birthday in October, and another of his cookbooks for Christmas. There's a good deal of stuff about umami in these books, and it set me off trying various things.

One of the more startling of these things is what I've been reading about MSG (MonoSodium Glutamate). I've always just assumed that MSG was right up there with heroin, crack and PopTarts as something that you really should not be putting into your body. But I realised I had no idea why I thought that. I just knew that it was commonly used as a 'flavour enhancer', especially in the Far East. A bit of Googling came up with 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome', which I've never really heard of before. It turns out that some people claim to get headaches after eating in Chinese restaurants, and without any formal research ever being done, MSG was singled out as the culprit and instantly demonised. To get the full background on this, read 'If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?'

Some of the natural sources of umami have certainly surprised me - I would have expected to see onions and their mates (leeks, celery, etc) in the list, but they don't really feature: tomatoes and mushrooms do though, but the winner by a long way is Kombu. Kombu is a seaweed from Japan (it's similar to kelp). I bought some a couple of weeks ago, and I've been using it to add umami to stocks and soups and sauces. It does this very well, and without making everything taste of seaweed. I won't be rushing out to buy MSG any time soon, but I'm certainly enjoying the umami-quest-fest.

UPDATE: umami burger, oh yeah! I forgot to mention mature Parmesan cheese is a great source of umami

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