If I asked you to match a food to each of the basic tastes — sweet, sour, bitter and salty — I'm guessing you'd answer with ease. What if I asked you to name the fifth taste? Could you? And could you list foods that provide it? No?
The answer is umami.
Umami is not as straightforward as its other taste counterparts. Some describe it as savory, meaty or rich. And in some cases, it's not the dominant taste but rather it makes other foods taste better.
So what's the answer to the second part of that question — what foods provide umami?
Just as the description is broad, so is the list of foods that provide this unique taste. Umami is found in protein-rich foods, such as duck and other poultry, aged beef, venison, eggs, aged cheese, fish and shellfish. Fish sauce is a classic umami ingredient, as are soy and Worcestershire sauces. Other foods that provide umami are tomatoes, mushrooms, asparagus and walnuts. By no means is this a complete list, but you get the idea.
What's so special about umami?
Because it has the ability to enhance flavors, it's a useful tool for the health-conscious cook. You can use it to boost flavor while reducing fat and salt in recipes. True, aged cheese and salty sauces aren't what you'd call health foods. But you don't need to use much to get the umami boost.
Grate just an ounce of aged cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, with a fine grater and you will create what looks to be a large volume (enough to share) and release the oils and the amazing flavor. Same with the sauces — a little goes a long way.
Other ingredients you can use to add umami to your dishes include:
- Dried seaweed (2 tablespoons = negligible sodium)
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (1 tablespoon = 76 mg sodium)
- Mushrooms such as dried shiitake (negligible amount of sodium)
- Sundried tomatoes (1 tablespoon = 21 mg sodium)
- Tomato paste (1 tablespoon = 124 mg sodium)
Take a moment to recognize the umami in your next meal. Experiment with umami ingredients. Please share your experience. Maybe you're a foodie and this is already in your arsenal. In that case, share your tips and maybe even a recipe or two.
Here's to slowing down to taste and enjoy our food,
April 17, 2012