Picture two different guys, say “Star Trek’s” new Captain Kirk, actor Chris Pine, and the new Scotty, accomplished comedian and writer Simon Pegg. The first face elicits an “Oh yeah!” and the second, “Oh well…”
They both have eyes, nose and a mouth. But there’s something about the size, shape and facial arrangement that makes a huge difference in the overall aesthetic. It’s an ineffable quality that’s hard to put into words, but known instinctively.
Umami is like that.
People have known the four basic tastes of salty, sweet, sour, and bitter since Greek philosopher Democritus (460 BC-370 BC) discussed them.
Then in the 19th century, the first true celebrity chef, Auguste Escoffier, developed veal demi-glace, a toothsome, highly reduced stock. The taste contained an unidentifiable deliciousness, of which people couldn’t get enough. This mysterious fifth flavor was named by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. He called it ‘umami’ which translates to "pleasant, savory taste." But Western scientists still weren’t buying.
Finally in 1985, the guys in the lab coats came around and at last recognized umami. It consists of the amino acid glutamate and nucleotides inosinate and guanylate, which when translated from science-speak to English becomes, “This stuff tastes good; I want more.”
Umami is found in many foods, like soy sauce, mushrooms, and beef. A dish with multiple umami-rich components is called an “umami bomb.”
Before I knew of the concept, there were dishes I cooked which had something that kept us coming back for more. One recipe was jacked-up Rice-a-Roni. I still make it, but now it’s prepared from scratch.
So here is my homemade, accidental umami bomb:
Debbie’s San Francisco Cheat
1 pound 80/20 ground beef
1 pound cleaned, sliced mushrooms
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh
½ yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1½ cups long grain rice, uncooked
1 cup uncooked fideo (Fideo is Spanish vermicelli-style pasta that’s about an inch long. The Hispanic section of most grocery stores carries a brand called La Moderna. Or, you can break angel hair into small pieces.)
3 cups beef stock
¾ cup dry Sherry
1 tablespoon mushroom soy sauce (Found in Asian supermarkets; I use Pearl River Bridge.)
1½ teaspoons porcini powder (available at Lowes Foods)
1 cup frozen shoe peg corn
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
2-3 tablespoons butter (this small amount imparts much creaminess)
Put a large, heavy, lidded pot on medium-high. Break the hamburger into bite-size chunks and brown. Remove meat and leave about a tablespoon of fat in the pan. Add sliced ‘shrooms, thyme, salt and pepper, and cook until the edges are caramelized. Add onions, and cook until they’re golden. Turn heat to medium.
Pour in rice and fideo. Stirring gently, allow it to lightly toast. Add garlic, and when you can smell it, deglaze pot with Sherry. When all the wine has cooked out, add back the ground beef. Pour in corn, stock, and soy. Stir in porcini powder and bring to a boil.
Cover pot and lower heat to medium-low. Cook 20-25 minutes or until the rice is cooked through, but mixture's still moist. Take off heat, and let sit covered for 10 minutes. Uncover, stir in butter, taste for seasoning, and plate. Serves 6-8.
But with the fifth taste comes controversy.
Umami in its crystalized form is MSG, or monosodium glutamate. And there are people who swear they are deathly allergic to MSG.
I know a guy who is convinced he can’t tolerate it. Eating Chinese food is a minefield, and many a headache and upset stomach have been laid at MSG’s feet. But this person devours red meat, and doesn’t consider a vegetable edible unless covered in lashings of cheese sauce.
Ironically cheese, meat, and many other foods are naturally chock-full of the stuff (even human breast milk contains a significant amount). No peer-accepted scientific test has ever actually identified a true allergic reaction to MSG. But for some people, no amount of studies or statistics will dissuade them of the notion that monosodium glutamate makes them ill.
So don’t bother arguing. When you see an MSG “sufferer” polishing off a big ole cheeseburger, be kind, and just laugh on the inside.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.