Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mmmm... Umami!

I found this article from the Wall Street Journal to be intensely illuminating, and I just had to share it. (Please do not get the impression that I am a regular WSJ reader; I am nowhere near that deep.) At first I clicked on the title and read it just out of curiosity: a new taste discovered? Neat.

But now I realize that this article is all about me. Some of you out there are sweetness junkies and carb-lovers. My husband is a good example: we have joked for years about the loving way that he hovers over any pastry, bread, rice, potato, sugary snack or, *gasp*, any combination of the aforementioned (like a cinnamon roll, or a sugared pastry.) I have always said that I like salt as much as he likes sugar, but that isn't exactly right. I do often find dishes to be too salty. But now I know what it is that I really crave: umami!

The article describes "umami" as the deep, meaty, satisfying and complex flavor that is present in a variety of foods: Worcestershire sauce, mushrooms, parmesan cheese, anchovies, and on and on. Just as table sugar is "just sweet," MSG is "just umami." Some parts of the article are a bit scary, like the goings-on of a certain food lab that is using "an artificial taste bud" (bringing sci-fi images of a large, disembodied organ to mind -- if I touched it, would it taste me?) to test artificial means of manufacturing umami, and a PR push to get the public to accept MSG as a "more natural product." But there are natural ways of bringing out the umami flavor that is already present in foods: by roasting, grilling, drying, and sautéing. To me, this gives a name to something that I have figured out in experimenting with vegetarian foods. Using certain ingredients, combined with certain techniques (mushrooms, parmesan, roasted veggies, grilled tofu and eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, etc.) make a dish much more satisfying than those without. I'm not a vegetarian, but I think the knowledge makes my vegetarian dishes better. Personally, I think it is umami that separates the vegetarian entrées from the side dishes.

It also explains why I've always needed parmesan in my chicken soup! What I need now is a t-shirt that tells the world what I really am: "Umami Freak."

P.S. I first read this article on a tiny screen in small text -- I apologize, but I misspelled umami the first time around. My thanks to those who commented and shouted this at me in ALL CAPS. Oops.


  1. Hm. I don't think I'll ever be ready to "embrace" MSG, but I do think I am understanding the umami thing. I love a good carb...I lived on bread and butter in college, especially while in London, and still really enjoy it even as a meal by itself...but there is a...robust...taste that I crave, especially in meatless dishes. This explains why I don't miss meat in the pasta sauce if it has mushrooms or cheese I guess....

  2. Yes, and just to be clear: MSG is purely "umami," but not all umami is MSG. You dig?