Last week, I hosted another City Bites Live event at Urban Element — and it was literally a food geek’s dream come true. Years ago I began exploring the subject of umami, the so-called fifth taste after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, and started to fantasize about assembling an entire umami meal. Foods that are known to be umami-rich are best described as supremely delicious; they have a savoury roundness and depth that seems to make our brains happy. You know what happens when you eat a potato chip or a slice of pizza and you can’t eat just one? That’s your brain calling out for more umami.
So together with an enthusiastic group of eaters, we spent three hours exploring the wonders of umami. The goal was to discover how we might use this knowledge to cook with more deliciousness at home. Thanks to tea sommelier Daniel Tremblay from Cha Yi and Chef Steve Wall and his assistant Matt Howell from Luxe Bistro, our umami desires were indulged in more ways than should be legal in one evening! In between sipping spring-harvested pure leaf green tea, devouring mushroom-smothered parmesan custard, and discovering the unmistakable difference between dry- and wet-aged beef with blue cheese tater tots, everyone gained a greater appreciation for this marvellous and mysterious sense.
The truth is, I was having such a blast and was so swept up in the tasting and talking, that I forgot to photograph several of the dishes! I did however manage to distill some of the information discussed into a list to share with City Bites readers.
Ten Inspiring Ideas About Umami
1. Umami is everywhere, not just in Japanese cuisine. In every culture there are examples of umami-rich ingredients. The foods we love, especially those we call “comfort foods,” are, more often than not, loaded with umami.
2. Cooks can build umami flavour into their cooking. In general, any process that breaks down protein, including drying, aging, curing, and slow cooking, increases umami. This is because glutamate, normally bound up in proteins, is released into a form the tongue can perceive as umami when proteins are broken down.
3. Umami is greater than the sum of its parts. When you combine umami-rich foods, it’s not like one plus one equals two in terms of flavour. Instead, a 50-50 mixture of two umami compounds can produce eight times as much flavor as either one of the compounds alone.
4. Layer on the umami toppings to make beef beefier. Aged cheeses, bacon, barbecue sauce, mushrooms, red wine, sour cream, soy sauce, tomatoes, and Worcestershire sauce are among the top flavours to pair with beef, and they are all rich in umami. The gourmet burger craze is not such a mystery after all.
5. Dry-aged beef has the more umami than wet-aged beef because of the enzymatic action that takes place during aging and because the flavours get concentrated as water evaporates. Conversely, the water in wet-aged beef tends to dilute the enzymatic action of breaking down the proteins into amino acids.
6. Umami now comes in a tube. Taste #5 Umami Paste (recently released as a President’s choice Black Label product) was developed by a British restaurateur and food writer. It is the first attempt to market a product solely as a source of umami. The purée combines many umami-rich ingredients including pulped anchovies, porcini mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and tomato paste. Squeeze some into mayo for an instantly addictive dip.
7. Umami is all about elevating and enhancing the other ingredients in a dish. If you like Thai food, notably Pad Thai and Tom Yum Gai (Thai chicken soup) the umami boost from fish sauce is a major reason. You may not wish to sip fish sauce straight from the bottle, but its unmistakable umami is set off by other substances. Try a splash or two in soups, marinades, salad dressings, pasta dishes, and casseroles. The Thai variety is called nom pla, the Vietnamese version is nuoc mam.
8. Parmesan is a stunning example of umami. Take a nice sized hunk off a wedge of real Parmiggiano-Reggiano and chew on it. That length and intensity of taste is umami at work.
9. Umami is experiencing a renaissance Interest in umami has surged in recent years, a revival led by some restaurant chefs and health-conscious cooks who seek ways to build flavour without fat.
10. Ooh-Mom-Me. Scientific studies demonstrate that our first encounter with umami-rich food is breast milk. It begs the question: are we hard-wired to desire and seek out this pleasure-inducing flavour experience?