Understanding umami can add an extra dimension of deliciousness to the most humble credit crunch dishes while for more glamorous affairs playing up umami can be truly sublime.
Originally defined in Japan, the concept of ‘umami’ has been knocking about in UK foodie circles for a few years now. It is called the fifth sense. It has been embraced by some and derided by others, but personally, I’m a believer. So what is umami? And does it actually matter to good cooks and good eaters?
The Umami Information Centre (oh yes!) www.umamiinfo.com describe it as:
… a pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.
Or in layman’s terms, umami is the thing that entices a person who has been vegetarian for 10 years to eat a bacon sandwich. It is the desire and enjoyment of protein.
Umami is not just a faddish contemporary dietary concoction; the great 19th century French food writer, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who famously wrote ‘tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who are’ was aware of umami. He called it Osmazone:
Foods rich in umami include: meat, oily fish, mushrooms, soya beans, parmesan cheese and yeast.
So what does acknowledging umami add to the cook’s repertoire? For those of us on a budget it is the awareness that a simple ingredient like rice will be so much more appealing when it is cooked in umami rich stock to make a pilau or risotto. The umami adds a satisfying dimension which is more than just perfume.
Equally a shaving of parmesan on spaghetti with tomato sauce will turn ordinary fare into something delicious, just as the addition of soy sauce to stir fry will turn a handful of vegetables into a complete meal.
For cooks with a bit more cash to splash putting umami rich meat, fish or cheese at the centre of a menu will be appealing not just because of their flavour and traditional role as pride of place, but because they provide the palate with a physical sense of pleasure as well as belly-filling fulfilment.
So what about umami and drinks? As umami is found in yeast any fermented liquid will have some umami including: beer, sake and wine. One example of the later is sparkling wine which is made with a second edition of sugar and yeast known as liqueur de triage. It is this secondary fermentation which creates bubbles.
Other yeast/umami rich wines are those which have ‘lees’ contact. Lees is the yeasty sediment that collects at the bottom of the fermentation tank. Deliberately letting wine absorb the flavour of this yeast not only adds flavour but a more viscous texture. Many opulent, but unwooded, Chardonnays have had considerable lees contact. Many red wines will also be left on the lees to increase their colour from the crushed skins and pick up umami on the way.
So how do these umami rich wines match food? Well it is the umami rich foods which are their most successful partners. Muscadet sur Lie and mussels is a classic and delicious pairing. Red wine and cheese/meat and increasingly fish is well documented. As for sparkling wines, matching a glass of yeasty Champagne with an umami rich English/Scottish breakfast is one of the best food matches ever. If you haven’t got a reason to try this decadent pleasure then make one up. There really is no excuse!