Umami is the dark horse of the senses and a reasonably new addition to the tastebuds, only really coming into population in the 1980’s. Coming from the Japanese, umami describes a flavour that has a ‘pleasant savoury taste’. This taste actually comes from an amino acid called L-glutamate (amongst others) and naturally occurs in a number of different products including multiple veggies. This taste is one that you would have tried in a wide variety of products across your life span and probably mislabelled as ‘savoury’. What once was the five basic taste has evolved to seven, taking sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami to include cool and hot and the reason why spicy is not included here is due to the scientific process in how our brain triggers a nerve signal – it’s not actually a flavour produced by our buds. But we are here to talk about one that is – Umami.
Known for its mild savoury profile this inhabits everything from a meaty, earthy or brothy taste that has a long-lasting aftertaste. Just like the other buds on the tongue, each one has different characteristics depending on the ingredients you’re tasting and will vary between one food to another. Products that contain high levels of glutamate, that all important amino acid that is the base of this taste, will naturally enhance the umami flavour in your dish. Products such as seaweed, miso and mushrooms are all rich in this acid and are the cause of the stimulation of saliva and lasting downy mouthfeel. Unlike the other basic tastes, umami isn’t one you would ideally like to consume a lot of on its own, its power is more attributed when paired with other tastes and helps heighten the complexity of dishes and offer a deep layer of flavour that continues to grow on the palate.
You can purchase umami rich ingredients in their natural form such as those found within fish particularly anchovies, and sardines, tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and yeast extract, or in condensed versions – with pastes, sauces and powders popping up on the shelves and are the perfect addition to a wide variety of dishes. Here are my favourite five products that you should always have in your pantry so you can add a more umami punch and complexity to your dishes simply and quickly.
A lot of fermented foods are rich in umami, mostly due to the liquid recipe the fermented foods have been contained in. A mixture of high contained umami products such as soy sauce or tamari are all mixed together to create a cocktail of umami flavour where only a few splashes is required to give you the complexity your dish requires.
You can add a complex depth of flavour by adding mushrooms in their whole form or add a concentrated amount through ground powders or dried varieties. Shitakes and Porcinis are your common dried or dehydrated mushrooms due to their richness in this taste bud. You can rehydrate and use the liquid as a rich umami stock base or fold in powders to batters or doughs.
Known mostly for its ability to add a ‘cheesy’ flavour to vegan dishes, the flavour profile people are replicating is more the umami rich parmesan instead. This flavour found within nutritional yeast has a combination of savoury and salty that is great to add a hit of umami in dishes or to finish them off hitting you with that long lasting taste that starts with the first bite and finishes as you do.
Tomatoes take the same path as mushrooms and can add this savoury taste in both their whole form or in their pantry variants. Sun-dried tomatoes, pastes and concentrates are a great simple way of building depths of flavours in curries, stews and soups. The drying process removes the moisture and really condenses the umami acids into a little flavour bomb.
Seaweed is notorious in being rich in umami and can come in fresh, dried or liquid states. Each one bringing a different level of concentration. Kombu, Kelp and Nori are the standards here and are available in pretty much every form you can think of. Dried sheets and flakes being rich in umami and the liquid broths and pastes following closely behind.