Sunday, 19 July 2009

A pinch of umami . . .

Just as I was thinking about posting on the subject of umami (following last night's delicious umami-rich supper of roast haddock and mushrooms) an animated discussion has broken out on Twitter on the virtues - or otherwise - of adding Marmite to a spaghetti sauce.

It was prompted by Nigella's discovery, revealed in Observer Food Monthly today, that adding Marmite to a classic al burro sauce makes for a particularly tasty, child-friendly meal, a tip she got from her mentor, Italian food writer Anna del Conte.

Marmite, of course, is rich in umami - the so-called 'fifth taste' (the others being sweet, sour, salty and bitter) It's a kind of intense savouriness you find in ingredients such as aged parmesan, roast chicken skin, slow roast tomatoes, porcini, fish sauce and dried seaweed like kombu and makes every dish that contains it taste lip-smackingly appetising.

The great thing about it is that it's not expensive. You only need a little to create the effect which makes it a great asset to the frugal cook's larder. Last night I cooked the simplest of dishes in my Remoska cooker (my new obsession) that involved sweating off a small onion, adding 250g of sliced chestnut mushrooms, cooking them for about 15 minutes then topping them with a couple of haddock fillets and cooking a further 6-7 minutes until the fish was cooked. The magic ingredient was a large pinch of the umami-rich poudre de ceps, I mentioned a couple of months back, which intensified the umami flavour of the mushrooms.

If you're going to France this summer look out for it in those sections of service stations that stock local food products (I think I bought mine in the Auvergne) or, if you can't wait that long buy a tin of the bizarrely named Shake O'Cini which has a similar effect. Failing that, add a little Marmite to your mushrooms - along with a good knob of butter. It might sound as weird with fish as it does with spaghetti but I bet it will work.

Do you consciously add umami to your cooking and if so, in what way? (I expect a full answer on this from Sig of Scandilicious, one of the three student collaborators on our forthcoming Ultimate Student Cookbook, who has studied the subject in depth ;-)

18 comments:

Charlie said...

So is umami glutamate then? Or is it more complicated than that? Parmesan and mushrooms are definitely very high in naturally-occurring glutamate.

[considers popping to Chinese shop for some MSG]

Fiona Beckett said...

Yup - MSG is full of umami but happily there are less noxious ways to enjoy it, in the foods I listed in the post

James said...

Fish sauce? Larb - that was a revelation. Cheap too - minced pork. A little goes a long way too.

Signe said...

Excellent synopsis of umami Fiona, and yes Charlie, MSG is full of umami but as Fiona suggests there are a myriad ingredients chock-full of umami goodness so avoid the powdered MSG next time you're in a Chinese or Asian store.

In brief, umami is comprised of three amino acids: the familiar glutamates, and less familiar inosinates and guanylates which act synergistically to create a savoury taste. I joked on twitter a while back when challenged to define umami in 140 characters that it "elicits sounds of mmm....better than sex" and that's the crux of umami: it's a sensation in your mouth when you eat a dish that renders you momentarily speechless. Make of that what you will.

In fact I was recently trying to explain the notion of umami to a group of otherwise open-minded friends over Sunday brunch, and foolishly neglected to include the abovementioned definition as said friends were non too convinced about the legitimacy of this peculiar word. My ex kept calling it 'uwawi' but then he's a donuthead. Honestly, you'd be amazed how many umami-sceptics there are. Or perhaps it's just my impatience at explaining the principle of umami, and assumption that if I accept umami then the world accepts umami ;) It ain't rocket science so I find scepticism about umami a little odd.

Basically as Fiona's already elaborated on, mushrooms are rich in umami, especially if they've been dried. Thus, sprinkling dried mushroom powder on a dish is going to make that dish all the more delectable. Tomatoes are a great source of umami, sun-dried tomatoes even more so, and don't get me started on the virtues of ketchup.

Most fermented or cured foods are high in umami, think cheese such as stilton, cheddar or of course the famous umamilicious parmesan. Smoked or cured fish and meat are also excellent sources of umami, which perhaps explains the Seinfeld character George Costanza's predilection for pastrami sandwiches deployed as, um, an aphrodisiac.

Foregoing that powdered MSG at a Chinese or Asian store Charlie is definitely a wise move, rather than risk a migraine, invest in fermented fish sauces such as nam pla, soy sauce, mirin and miso paste - all will significantly up the umami quotient of your kitchen cupboard. Fiona's mentioned marmite, worcestershire sauce is another umami-rich condiment. Dark chocolate too which is hardly news to chocoholics.

There's loads more you can learn about umami from the likes of food scientist Harold McGee or Heston Blumenthal. Suffice to say if you keep a supply of umamilicious ingredients to hand, you can cook in a much more freestyle way. Add a dash of worcester sauce to your spag bol, or even a dollop of marmite. Spaghetti embellished with parmesan, tomato and salted anchovies is a classic umami dish, but there are plenty of options - mix and match nam pla with marmite, dark chocolate and dried mushrooms and see what happens. Ok that may not work, but expect to reap the rewards from experimentation with umami...

Fiona Beckett said...

Ah . . . knew that would get you going, Sig. Not totally convinced about the virtues of nam pla and dark chocolate but otherwise I'm with you all the way. (Especially Worcestershire sauce. I forgot that one. No home used to be without it. Great for shepherds pie. As is Marmite, of course ;-)

Interestingly you can create a umami taste out of ingredients that are not themselves umami, witness Heston's addition of a pinch (no more) of five spice to fried onions which creates the best onion gravy you will have ever eaten.

Fiona Beckett said...

Oh, and yes, James. You're right about larb/larp. Easy to make, cheap and very tasty . . .

hongkongphoodey said...

I often add soy sauce to spag bols/chillis etc to give it that kick. I didn't realise that it was adding umami until recently though.

My definition is that when you are cooking something savoury and you feel it's just lacking some sort of depth of flavour, you feel an inkling of dissatisfaction - you need the umami twist. Definitely going to try the ceps powder. Thanks for that one!

Claire in France said...

Marmite is a luxury here in France, and although I can easily find "la sauce anglaise" (Worcestershire is just impossible to pronounce in French!), I'll stick to poudre de c├Ępes!
I had never thought of it in this way, but of course it makes sense...

laundryetc said...

I have recently acquired a remoska and absolutely love it. I bought it to use at my shop and as well as baking alsorts of savoury things for lunch I have baked wonderful cakes and it fills the shop with baking aromas. Sometimes I greet customers with a bowl and wooden spoon under my arm whilst I'm creaming the butter and sugar.

theundergroundrestaurant said...

As MsMarmitelover, you might guess that i love all foods umami...and looking forward to collaborating with Signe on an all umami menu for the Underground Restaurant.

Greenlady said...

Chocolate and marmite is not actually that unlikely an umami combo. I eat crumpets topped with the following : butter, marmite then dark chocolate spread. Invented by accident, tastes delicious. One flavour intensifies the other.

Fiona Beckett said...

Yes, soy would do the trick too, hongkongphoodey, especially dark soy.

And do track down that poudre de cepes or similar, Claire. Honestly I wouldn't be without it.

I haven't tried cakes in the Remoska yet laundryetc. Do you find the top tends to burn or is it OK?

Hoping to come along to the umami evening MsMarmitelover - keep me posted

Not being a chocoholic as well as an umamiphile I'm not sure about that combo greenlady ;-) Crumpets and Marmite, definitely though. And crispbread and Marmite - with a bit of butter. Marmite seems to need butter to bring out its full umami taste

laundryetc said...

Fiona, I have made a tin foil donut! to place over the top of the cake as it bakes, to protect the top when baking in the remoska. To be able to rustle up a homemade cake whilst at work makes up for a sometimes-slightly-darker top on the cake.

The Vicar's Wife said...

Do chillis have umami? In South East Asia, where we lived for a while, they are used as a condiment. Either birds eye chillis or pickled green chillis are chopped and soaked in soy sauce and served on the side to season your food. We had our fried rice with pickled chillis and soy on top tonight. The chillied soy sauce is delicious.

Fiona Beckett said...

I've read about these multi-layered Remoska lids which sound a bit elaborate to construct. Wonder if it wouldn't be easier to cut a foil pie dish to fit?

And chillies, Vicar's Wife - I'd have said not though Sig may correct me. I'd have thought it was the soy rather than the chilli- and possibly fish sauce if there was any of that too

Charlie said...

:-D I knew mentioning MSG would get the foodies up in arms!

Thanks for the chemical info Signe.

eatitgood said...

I rehydrate dried asian mushrooms (much cheaper than dried porcini.) The chopped mushies get thrown into soup, stew, pasta, everything and I reserve the soaking water for stock.

Anonymous said...

If you want to understand the unami taste, swirl a pinch of MSG around in your mouth. (The added sodium in Monosodium Glutamate will give it a slightly salty taste, which you should ignore.) Its glutamic acid gives it, for want of a better word, a rounded character, which you’ll recognize from foods rich in protein, such as consomme. Adding a yeast extract, such as Marmite, to foods that are low in protein also gives them this well-rounded character. (Another alternative is Worcestershire sauce, if its vinegar is acceptable in the dish.)

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