Our fondness for sweets is innate. The taste of glucose goes right to the brain, to the hypothalamus, a primitive region related to reward, emotion and a sense of well being, stimulating the release of dopamine. In other words we are hard-wired to love sweetness. The only way to cope is to walk away, or in my case, run like hell.
Umami, on the other hand, is more culturally determined, that is to say, learned. Umami is the Japanese word for ‘savouriness’. We can improve our home cooking by paying attention to ingredients rich in umami. That is the theme of this post. Most flavour preferences are learned and we can learn more about great taste in our own kitchens. Topics related to taste and smell, their impact on diet and nutrition, are not easy to comprehend. I am not a scientist, or a doctor, or a nutritionist. What little I know about taste and flavour I’ve learned from teaching wine, and wine and food pairing, courses – based on that experience, I can tell you the variables are so extensive, that objectivity usually gets trampled by headlong, galloping subjectivity. So what I am offering here are handrails, not dogma.
That said: here is some dogma. You can counter your built-in fondness for things sweet by avoidance. I travel with alternatives in the car and in my shoulder bag. There is plenty of sugar in fruits and vegetables, porridge and beans, etc., so that you don’t need highly refined sugars in your diet. You will be much better off without them. Just remember this, sugar feeds cancer. You can also lower your taste threshold for salt by slowly reducing it in your cooking. In mere weeks you will realize that most foods in Canada are way over salted, especially canned soup, tomatoes and most prepared frozen foods and most restaurant food. As for fat, I can barely say a word without sounding like a complete hypocrite. From the cornucopia of earthly delights I go straight for the fat. But at home, on a day-to-day basis, we can tweak how we cook by learning about umami. This is more fun than unlearning anything.
In 1866 a German scientist, Dr. Karl H.L. Ritthausen, identified glutamic acid, the most abundant amino acid, in his studies on wheat. But it was the Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who in 1908, isolated this substance and linked it to umami. It has been in the news for the past decade because western scientists have found a taste receptor on the tongue for savouriness making it ‘official.’ Umami, now called the 5th taste,is the real deal. The press has made ample noise out of the discovery, especially the discovery of ‘taste’ receptors in the stomach. However, none of this is the final word on umami or taste and smell. The research is ongoing and further shakeups are on the way. In 2006 a taste receptor for fat was isolated on the human tongue; scientists labeled it CD36. Catchy isn’t it? Most of the rest of us are calling it the 6th taste. Awaiting further blind trials, lab tests, etc. are taste receptors for chemical heat (jalapenos), texture (astringency), and effervescence (sparkling wine); which will bring us up to 9 tastes. In other words, it may be time to throw out those old text-books, and cook books, that spoke of the classic 4 tastes: salt, sugar, acid and bitter.
Professionals in the food and beverage sector are closely following the new science looking for ways to increase flavour, while saving time, cutting costs and chumming you back to their restaurants. Domestic cooks should also pay attention, not for shortcuts, but as a genuine way to cut down on our use of salt, sugar and fat, without sacrificing flavour. Asian cultures have long been aware that certain ingredients, like Kombu (a seaweed) have the ability to elevate taste and aroma to a higher level of flavour. It isn’t a gimmick, or a trick, it is simply knowledge and time. For example, if you add a tablespoon of miso to chicken and dumplings, your favourite comfort food pops up a notch. You’ll never taste the miso itself but its influence on the other ingredients is both subtle and complex. Kombu does the same thing in soup, stir-fries, or stew.
The UMAMI Information Center, (http://www.umamiinfo.com) refers to this synergistic effect as 1+1=8. The thing to remember when doing this is context. When you add an umami ingredient, as we did with the miso above, you add the miso first and then taste for salt. If you need more salt add the salt and taste again. And here is a tip. If you are cooking beans, or lentils, don’t add salt or miso until the beans are nearly cooked. Salt hardens the beans which increases flatulence. Many of these umami-rich foods are already in your fridge and cupboards. A short and familiar list looks like this: miso, parmesan cheese, seaweeds (such as kelp, dulce and kombu), anchovies, garden fresh tomatoes, (or Italian D.O.P. canned tomatoes will do), mushrooms (especially dried Shiitakes), olive oil (stock two kinds, a good one for cooking and this one for salads like Frantoi Cutrera, D.O.P. Monti Iblei), soy sauce, homemade stock (keep some frozen in ice cube trays) and sherry (the real stuff).
A quick and simple recipe using umami ingredients that makes the point is Basque Mushrooms on Toast. The recipe is easy to find on line. You can make this recipe in about half an hour and it pairs really well with most red wines. You can further ramp up the flavour (1+1=8) by using your own homemade stock, made with kombu of course. You can use vegetable stock to make it vegetarian. If you don’t use a beef broth, homemade or otherwise, add a tablespoon of soy sauce and a teaspoon of dark miso to make it darker and richer. Taste for salt. The point of paying attention to this umami question is that it leads to a diet richer in amino acids, the building blocks of protein, which allows you to eat less volume and still feel satiated at the end of a meal. Those ‘taste’ receptors in the stomach, talk to the brain via the vagus nerve and help the body determine when you have had enough. That is a layperson’s generalization of a very complex process still under intensive research and not yet fully understood. But just give it a go and let us know how you are getting on. If you like, I’ll add more recipes along the way.
Still not convinced? Then consider this; mothers’ milk is rich in glutamic acid and because you are reading this, you can’t have any.