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Umami: 2009 Food Word of the Year

24 December 2009 1,418 views 12 Comments

American children are taught to recognize four main basic taste categories: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. In the Southwest, there is of course a fifth taste — spicy. However, more and more American foodies and chefs are starting to call out another basic taste called Umami.

According to Umamiinfo.com, umami is a pleasant savory 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. As the taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don’t recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious.

umami-burger-logo1

Umami Burger: The Fifth Taste is a local restaurant chain in L.A. too!

Whaa?

I decided to go straight to Tyson Cole, the person who first patiently explained umami to be during a food blogger event at his restaurant, Uchi (I just looked back at the post and see that the word he actually explained to me is unctuous — that’s for another post apparently).

TYSON COLE, EXECUTIVE CHEF OF UCHI

Umami is a simple term, meaning “beautiful taste” in Japanese. You
hear Japanese people everywhere…at home or in a restaurant…when
they taste something they consider delicious, they say emphatically
“U-mai!”. I’ve said it myself thousands of times, but not once every
thought that relationship of food understanding would reach American
soil with the fever it has today.

Umami is naturally composed in so many food combinations; the Chinese
and Japanese have recognized it for centuries. So much so, eventually
it was synthesized into a stronger,more readily accessible format in
the form of a powder. We call it “MSG”, and something that started to
help the Asian housewife make food tasty quicker and easier, quickly
evolved into a worldwide phenomena.

I’m glad the term Umami is recognizable now. It gives people a
barometer to measure what they really tasting, and make informed
decisions on what to eat in the future. A labor intensive Pho broth
that cooks for 14 hours to create such delicious Umami, should stand
alone to diners away from the ready made MSG laden quick and easy egg
drop soup at Chinese buffets. The two should never be compared.

Next time you bite into that BLT or fried pickle, think about it: U-mai!

I was curious about what other Austin chefs and foodies had to say about umami as well:

JASON DONOHO, EXECUTIVE CHEF OF FINO AND ASTI

“UMAMI,To me is not one thing but the combination of many…tacos al pastor have it. Kona Kanpachi at Uchi has it for sure, My paella has it….sometimes….It can be elusive though. I am always looking for it this time of year in richer dishes.”


JACK GILMORE OF JACK ALLEN’S KITCHEN

“Umami  – do they have that in South Austin? Seriously, it sounds  to  me like a fancy way to say …  “hmm, this is so good, I should order another.” Or maybe it describes  your thinking when you’re deciding NOT to share the best dish on the table with anyone else. OR maybe it describes the feeling you have when you can’t  wait to come back to a restaurant and order that meal again.”

The review below is an excerpt from Laura Kelso’s review of a dish at Uchi on her reviews website, Dishola.

LAURA KELSO, FOOD WRITER AND DISHOLA CO-FOUNDER

I like to use it [umami} as the French might when describing that “je ne sais quoi” quality about a particularly memorable dish.

There is no better way to describe Uchi’s hamachi cure other than calling it an umami-bomb. In this dish, Chef Tyson Cole piles on ingredients naturally rich in umami, starting with baby yellow tail that has been smoked (over ice, our knowledgeable waiter informed us) with sugar-cured maple wood. That sweet-savory flavor infuses the velvety-soft fish.

When you pile your bite just right – a small slab of yellowtail, balanced on a yucca chip, with a bit of pear, a marcona almond, and a dusting of salmon roe – the complex taste and tongue-coating sensation it provides…well, that’s umami.

What comes to mind when you hear the word umami? What is your favorite “umami bomb” dish? Points goes to comments that make my mouth water with their descriptions!

  • Rachel Robinson

    Jodi, my colleague Katy McLaughlin (you met her when she was in Austin this past summer) wrote a great piece on umami: http://online.wsj.com/public/article_print/SB11

  • jodibart

    Thanks, Rachel. I read the piece and e-mailed Katy and she told me about
    Umami Burger in L.A. It is now on my list of must-try places to eat of
    course!

  • jodibart

    Thanks, Rachel. I read the piece and e-mailed Katy and she told me about
    Umami Burger in L.A. It is now on my list of must-try places to eat of
    course!

  • Jason G

    I went to Lampreia in Seattle a few weeks ago — http://www.lampreiarestaurant.com
    The chef, Scott Carsberg, a James Beard award-winner, made an *amazing* 6-minute egg that was cooked in soy sauce. So simple yet so perfect. The egg white and egg yolk soaked up all the umami from the soy sauce bath, and flooded my mouth with savory goodness. We clearly don't have the right words in the English language to accurately describe umami :)

    After some Googling, I can say that it kinda looked like this: http://www.well.com/user/lonewolf/Weird-Egg-Int… (though of course that's not my photo)
    Yeah, I know, doesn't look great, but don't judge the book by its cover.

  • Jason G

    I went to Lampreia in Seattle a few weeks ago — http://www.lampreiarestaurant.com
    The chef, Scott Carsberg, a James Beard award-winner, made an *amazing* 6-minute egg that was cooked in soy sauce. So simple yet so perfect. The egg white and egg yolk soaked up all the umami from the soy sauce bath, and flooded my mouth with savory goodness. We clearly don't have the right words in the English language to accurately describe umami :)

    After some Googling, I can say that it kinda looked like this: http://www.well.com/user/lonewolf/Weird-Egg-Int… (though of course that's not my photo)
    Yeah, I know, doesn't look great, but don't judge the book by its cover.

  • jodibart

    Mmmmouth watering so that must be it!

  • jodibart

    Mmmmouth watering so that must be it!

  • jodibart

    Mmmmouth watering so that must be it!

  • jodibart

    Thanks, Rachel. I read the piece and e-mailed Katy and she told me about
    Umami Burger in L.A. It is now on my list of must-try places to eat of
    course!

  • Jason G

    I went to Lampreia in Seattle a few weeks ago — http://www.lampreiarestaurant….
    The chef, Scott Carsberg, a James Beard award-winner, made an *amazing* 6-minute egg that was cooked in soy sauce. So simple yet so perfect. The egg white and egg yolk soaked up all the umami from the soy sauce bath, and flooded my mouth with savory goodness. We clearly don't have the right words in the English language to accurately describe umami :)

    After some Googling, I can say that it kinda looked like this: http://www.well.com/user/lonew… (though of course that's not my photo)
    Yeah, I know, doesn't look great, but don't judge the book by its cover.

  • jodibart

    Mmmmouth watering so that must be it!

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