Friday, March 17, 2006

It's All About the Umami

Perhaps you've had this experience:

You have a recipe that relies heavily on chicken or beef broth for flavor. In order to "parvise" the recipe (or make it vegetarian), you replace the meat broth with immitation chicken or beef broth from a mix. The recipe works beautifully, but you're not happy about your reliance on phony meat, so one day you nobly prepare a homemade vegetable stock and use that instead. To your surprise, the flavor is one-dimensional and unappealing. You were better off with the mix.

A Boston Globe article that I read recently got me thinking about this phenomenon in a new light. The article is about the fifth and least familiar taste, umami. The word umami, which roughly translates as "delicious" in Japanese, was first used to describe a specific taste by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that MSG is unhealthy unless you're allergic to it; unfortunately, however, many people are.

Scientists attribute umami to certain amino acids and nucleotides including, but not restricted to, glutamate. It seems that the flavor develops in meat as it cooks and the proteins are broken down into amino acids. (Braising meat is the best way to bring out the umami.) Vegetables develop umami as they ripen. Fermentation brings out the umami in wine, beer, and Asian foods like miso and fish sauce.

Clear vegetable broth isn't nearly as umami-rich as chicken broth or soup mix with MSG, presumably because you need a higher concentration of specific vegetables in order to get deep umami flavor. A rich mushroom, squash, or tomato broth is fine, but only if you're making mushroom, squash, or tomato soup.

The authors of The Fifth Taste: Cooking With Umami claim that you don't need MSG to make umami-rich food, and they seem to have plenty of vegetarian recipes to offer. Still, it seems to me that takes a bit more to pack umami into a vegetarian dish than a fleischig one. Here are a few tricks that I've found bring out the flavor I now know as umami in parve soups:

1. Make soups hearty, not thin and clear.
2. Use crushed tomatoes or tomato puree if the flavor is compatible with the type of soup you're making.
3. Add chunks of sweet potato or winter squash to vegetable, split pea, and lentil soups.
4. Add a splash of dry wine (preferably red, if you're using tomatoes).
5. Let soup simmer for a good 3-5 hours, if not longer.

As for parve hot and sour soup, vegetarian grape leaves, and matsa farfel kugel, I'm sticking with the MSG.

(Cross-posted to Kosherblog.)


Mar Gavriel said...

Interesting. So the home-made chicken broth that I just added to my vegetable stir-fry is giving it umami?

elf said...

I guess :)

debka_notion said...

I've never met a soup that takes less than 2+ hours anyways, meat or milk, except gazpacho. So another hour or so- sure, not so hard.

Of course, most of my soups are dairy, not pareve. I finda bit of butter along with the olive oil to make a significant difference, much of the time. The fatdDoesn't need to be all butter, but a bit of better butter...

I doubt this has to do with umami issues- but it does have to do with soup taste.

willendorf said...

I've been reading a book about miso, which says that what makes the flavor of miso distinctive is umami. It includes a recipe for a vegetarian French onion soup in which miso and shiitake mushrooms apparently supply the umami that would otherwise be provided by beef broth. So if you want to make a thin, brothy soup, miso might be a good addition.

elf said...

So if you want to make a thin, brothy soup, miso might be a good addition.

Interesting. I've had trouble finding miso with a hekhsher, but I'm not sure that it needs one. I'll try to find out.

notsosecretgarden said...

I've been going through two very new food addictions. The first is miso, second is a bell pepper salad that I could only describe as "savory". I recently learned about umamai and finally realized that it's umami I'm addicted to-not just these two foods. I still eat the two for breakfast lunch and dinner. Miso is my absolute favorite in anything. Thanks for confirming my suspicion that it (according to some) is essentially umami.

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