Hi! Chef Christina here again!
If you read my last article on comfort food, you might remember my passion for all things food, but you might also remember an unfamiliar term that I used in my comparison between lettuce and beef stew. This term was umami. Today, I would like to delve deeper into the definition of that word and what it means to us as humans, cooks and foodies.
Now, the word umami is a Japanese word that translates roughly to “deliciousness.” This is a pretty broad spectrum if you ask me. What’s delicious to me and what’s delicious to you are more likely than not, two very different things. Like humans, our avian friends don’t always agree what’s delicious either. Goldfinches adore nijer; cardinals prefer sunflower seeds.
Let’s take this just one step further and translate it one more time. You and I would understand this word better as “savory.” So to put this into context for everyone, the term and its definition are meant to be used within the frame of taste sensations. Humans, for the longest time, only categorized four sensations: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. This is a great summary of how we experience taste sensations when we sample, and almost all food can be slipped into one or two of these four categories until they can’t. Therein lies the challenge - there is a flavor sensation that is difficult to describe.
I’m going to continue to use the beef stew example so bare with me please! Think of a great beef stew recipe, your favorite one. Think about what goes into it - seared beef, vegetables, probably some red wine and tomato paste, stock, and herbs, at its most basic formula. A recipe this simple could absolutely not fit with at least three of the four mentioned sensations. It’s neither sweet nor bitter nor sour. It could be slightly salty, sure, but it’s not JUST that, is it? No! It’s got a rich deep flavor, that’s almost dark and very full bodied.
This indescribable taste that you are thinking of now, is what we categorize as umami, or savory. It’s truly a word to describe something indescribable. This is probably why the Japanese simply used the term for “deliciousness.” The seared beef, the red wine, the stock and the tomato paste are all the vehicles of the umami flavor in this case. Some more perfect examples of foods that can offer you this type of sensation are things like mushrooms, anchovies, capers, seaweed, kombu, tomato paste, soy sauce, green tea, most fermented foods, toasted nuts and seeds, truly the list goes on and on.
Umami, or savory, however is not just about the ingredients you add to a dish to make it taste delicious. No, this powerhouse works double duty for your cooking. The umami flavor is also used not only as a main flavor, but also as a vehicle for other flavors and often times can be CREATED where it wasn’t strong before. Browning your vegetables instead of steaming them, toasting your spices before you use them, caramelizing your onions, grilling your asparagus, all of these types of browning create that deep richness that we are so drawn to, but can’t quite pin point.
Moving into this holiday season, I challenge all you foodies and cooks to think before you cook. What are you making and where can you enhance what you are doing by adding just a hint of richness and a touch of umami? Can we sauté our vegetables? Can we roast our potatoes and squash? Can we add nuts and seeds to our fall salads? Really reach out to the ideas in your mind that you are not sure about and run with them - that’s surely the best way to grow as a home cook and a true foodie.