Savoury, earthy, mushroomy - none of them quite fit the bill when trying to describe the ever illusive umami taste. A part of everyday vocabulary in Japan for years, where the word itself means ‘deliciousness', umami is becoming increasingly well known in the UK. Professional chefs and household cooks alike are picking up on its many health and taste benefits. Many Clearspring products are rich in umami and incorporating them into your cooking will give your dishes that instant and unique savoury hit.
So let's start at the beginning with kombu, the sea vegetable. In 1908, the Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda was sitting down to a dish of simmered tofu when it occurred to him that there was a taste there that could not be classified as any of the four known tastes: sweet, salty, bitter or sour; it was a fifth taste, which he later dubbed umami. As the tofu itself had a relatively plain taste, he instinctively knew that it must be the kombu which was responsible for this added dimension in the dish, so he set to work finding out what this taste was. His research led to the identification of the amino acid glutamate, which kombu contains in abundance, as one of the main umami substances.
Just as sweetness, for example, can be derived from different substances such as glucose or fructose, umami too comes from a variety of substances. Since the discovery of kombu’s glutamate content, other scientists have gone on to find other umami substances in fish, cheese, mushrooms and many other ingredients.
Although glutamate sounds similar to monosodium glutamate (MSG), it is important to point out that MSG is a chemically synthesised flavour enhancer while glutamate is a naturally occurring substance which is perfectly safe and healthy. So if you want to boost the umami levels in your dishes without resorting to artificial chemicals try adding some umami-rich Clearspring products, such as Kombu, Miso and Tamari.
Unlike the other basic tastes, umami has the unique quality of bringing the other tastes together to create a more cohesive dish and a fuller taste in the mouth - just as the kombu brought out the best in the simmered tofu.
This, however, does not mean that umami is either a new concept or an exclusively Japanese taste. Umami-rich ingredients can be found in every part of the world and people have been playing with ways of enhancing their cooking with it for millenia. For example, in ancient Rome they had garum - a fermented fish sauce, similar to the modern South East Asian sauces, which was regularly used to season and enhance dishes. Equally, basic soup stocks all over the world tend to be rich in umami as are tomato ketchup and purée, essential store cupboard ingredients in most Western kitchens, and even Marmite.
If you want to try your own experiment, make two pans of risotto, one simply with rice, onions, thyme and stock, the other with the addition of dried porcini mushrooms, which have been rehydrated, and also the liquid that they soaked in. If you taste both risottos, you may find that the first is a little flat, as if something is missing. Now try the second and it will have a much more rounded taste and a greater depth of flavour too. This is due to the umami content of the dried porcini.
Umami, the fifth human taste, is often associated with fish, meat and dairy products, but vegan ingredients can also be rich in umami. Many Clearspring products are naturally bursting with umami and can be used to enhance any number of dishes. Umami-rich vegan ingredients include:
Sea vegetables - while kombu has the highest concentration, all sea vegetable varieties contain umami, so incorporate some Clearspring Sea Vegetables into your diet.
Shiitake - drying them also intensifies the umami content; Clearspring Sun Dried Japanese Shiitake are packed with umami.
Soya beans - this includes soya bean products such as miso and soy sauce which are even higher in umami due to the fermentation process. Try using Clearspring Miso as a seasoning, stock or soup base for an instant umami boost. A splash of Clearspring Organic Tamari Soya Sauce or Shoyu Soya Sauce will also do the trick.
Mirin - another great umami seasoning, adding Clearspring Mirin to you dishes adds both sweetness and depth of flavour.
Green tea - green tea contains varying levels of the amino acids responsible for the umami taste, and the Clearspring Green Tea range is no exception.
Other umami ingredients include: potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, Chinese cabbage, asparagus, green peas, spinach and nuts.