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In search of umami

Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland, where I’ve had some wonderful meals and long for more.

As I recall, I encountered the idea of umami a few years ago, but I didn’t pay much attention because I assumed that it was not for real. But this week, while having an email conversation with a friend (thanks, Dean) about my post on Scotch broth, I realized that the idea of umami as a “fifth taste” is very real. The concept of umami also explains some major mysteries in the kitchen.

First, so that I don’t have to repeat the basics about what umami is and what kind of foods contain it, here are links to a couple of articles. The first is the Wikipedia article, and the second is a Wall Street Journal article from 2007.

Aha! Now I know why that sneaky, barely noticeable dash of ketchup wakes up certain dishes. Now I know why I can’t reproduce Scotch broth without sheep bones. Now I understand why it’s difficult to reproduce Asian cooking at home. Now I know why I look longingly at that bottle of tamari (soy sauce) in the refrigerator door but avert my eyes for fear of adding too much salt. Now I understand why miso is so addictive.

And now that we understand umami, what are we going to do about it, especially those of us who tend toward vegetarianism?

For one, it may be time to rethink our demonization of MSG (monosodium glutamate). Though the chemical name sounds scary, it’s actually made from natural fermentation, and it seems that no studies have confirmed its bad rap. So I think that on my next trip to Whole Foods, I’ll see if they carry some form of MSG that is guaranteed to be naturally fermented rather than synthesized. And though I’m no great fan of the taste of seaweed, I also will get some kombu and see what I can do with it.

The theory of umami also explains a mystery about the British Isles that I’ve puzzled over for a long time. Why does English and Welsh cooking tend to be so bland and Irish and Scottish cooking so savory? Solution: The Irish understand umami — in particular the arts of broth-making and sauce-making. Umami probably has to do with why Christopher Kimball, editor of Cook’s Illustrated, says that cooking isn’t easy. You can get cooking 99 percent right, but without that tiny kick of umami, food fails to be thrilling.


  1. Rene wrote:

    In Ayurvedic medicine there are six tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, pungent and astringent. I am curious where umami falls into that system.

    As for MSG, I avoid eating it because I thought it contains glutens, which don’t agree with me. But I’ve done more research as a result of your post and find:

    Although MSG is gluten-free, it’s often served in dishes that contain other gluten-laden ingredients, such as wheat noodles or grains of barley. Many brands of ingredients used in Chinese food recipes contain gluten. For example, some types of teriyaki and soy sauces are made from gluten-containing wheat. Meat, fish or poultry that is battered, breaded or marinated may also be coated with gluten.

    Friday, February 1, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink
  2. dcs1964 wrote:


    It’s interesting that you used the word “thrilling.” The most common description of umami is that thrilling moment when you take the first bite of a well-cooked steak. Mmmm. Warm, savory, deeply satisfying.

    Umami is mostly associated with the taste of meat, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how that doesn’t have to be so, about how to get that umami satisfaction in vegetarian food, too. You mentioned miso, and I thought also of the dash of soy sauce I always add to soup. You mentioned recipes that call for a tablespoon of ketchup, and I thought of Asian dishes that call for a dash of fish sauce, even though you’re not cooking fish.

    Now I know why Lila, my old Jewish friend, always had oyster sauce on hand and would use a touch of it even if she was cooking — get this — a steak. Really. She would smear a little bit of oyster sauce on steaks before cooking them.

    To Rene: Thank you for that note about how MSG is not necessarily an irritant for those of us trying to keep a gluten-free kitchen. I’m neutral on the question of MSG, but it’s good to know that the MSG itself is not the source of gluten.

    By coincidence, before I saw this post, I did an experiment today. (Note: This is not gourmet cooking, just an experiment to see if I could boost the umami of a completely vegetarian dish.) So I made a simple soup that simmered for two hours with these ingredients: onion in olive oil, then crushed tomato, black beans and Brussel’s sprouts, very lightly seasoned with rosemary and thyme and pepper. There was a splash of white wine in there at some point, and I thinned the soup a bit with low-sodium chicken stock. I intentionally did not add *any salt* because I didn’t want my taste buds fooled by the salt. (There was already some salt in the ingredients.)

    Result: The combination of the black beans and Brussel’s sprouts was deeply, deeply satisfying. I think this also illustrates the partnership role that tomato has in enhancing the sense of umami. There is something about the Brussel’s sprouts that, as I’ve said, I couldn’t put my finger on before but now think captures the essential idea of umami. I ate some simple mashed potatoes on the side to add heft to the meal. It was like a steak dinner without the steak.

    Let’s keep experimenting and trading ideas about how to experience umami in vegetarian dishes. I would love one day to make a totally delicious beef stew — without any beef!


    Friday, February 1, 2013 at 11:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Uptown Jimmy wrote:

    If I understand correctly, MSG paranoia first sprang to life mid-20th-century as a result of mild anti-Chinese racism in major American cities. MSG hysteria actually counts as one of the earliest urban legends. All of the Chinese restaurants were definitely using it, buying it in large bins, in fact, but the irony was that the Chinese proprietors began ratting each other out, hiding their own usage of the stuff while spreading rumors about their competitors’ heavy use of it.

    There is literally no evidence that MSG affects anyone adversely, at least not any more than table salt. That is: MSG is a salt, and you don’t want to eat too much of it, but eating too much salt is just not usually an issue for folks that have these sorts of conversations, so…

    Friday, February 1, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Permalink
  4. dcs1964 wrote:

    Oh, my God. I just realized I might be as shallow as everyone else.

    I very often crave broccoli, spinach, Brussel’s sprouts and asparagus. I long ago decided it was because that was my body’s way of saying that I needed the wholesome nutrients contained in them. I was proud of myself for *wanting* those healthy foods.

    But what if it was just the umami? What if I wanted those foods just for the flavor? No different than some poor schlub who craves a Slurpee for the sugar?

    I’m an umamiholic!


    Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 12:04 am | Permalink

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