True confession time: I'm not really sure I know what the taste of umami is. I know that as a certifiable-type food blogger, I'm supposed to know these things. But truthfully, I'm a little skeptical of all these Americanos who grew up on ring-dings and are now waxing poetic about the joys of umami -- which, admittedly, is "subtle and serves to enhance other flavors." It's one thing, I suppose, if you grew up in Japan with lots of bonito flakes and dashi stock and all. Then it would be something that you knew and understood from birth, and you would come to associate certain foods with it. But whenever I try to figure it out, I see lists of foods that are as divergent as anchovies and peas, for example. Or corn and seaweed and Parmigiano Reggiano. Carrots, truffles, foie gras and green tea, too. All of these are positively loaded with umami, it seems -- but don't have a lot else in common taste-wise, as far as I can tell. Being loaded with umami means they're high in glutamates, an amino acid compound responsible for the flavor of umami. Yes, glutamates, as in monosodium glutamate, the compound of which the seasonings Accent and Ajinomoto are composed. Yes, monosodium glutamate, the evil element supposedly responsible for "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," which resulted in Chinese restaurants posting "No MSG!" signs in their windows for the past 30 years or so. Now the debate has re-opened and apparently MSG is no longer evil or dangerous.
None of this helps me get any closer to pinning down the elusive flavor of umami. I know I'm getting closer; when I let go of the skepticism and try to get at exactly what it is, I know it's a savory something. Savoriness, I guess. Which I tend to associate with saltiness, so there I am back at four tastes instead of five. I remember my grade school science class, where they wanted to teach us the four tastes. We were given tiny samples of salt, sugar, a lemon wedge and a square of unsweetened chocolate; they were the elemental foods for salty, sweet, sour and bitter. I don't know how they're going to teach that lesson nowadays, short of giving students a nice heaping helping of Accent straight from bottle as the representative sample for umami.
The fifth taste was discovered by this fellow, and more recently scientists verified that there is a receptor for umami on the tongue. But I still don't have it pegged yet. If you do, please help me out. Describe it for me -- or give me an example of a taste that's the quintessential flavor of umami.
In the meantime, I'll give you this recipe for a fresh-from-the-market vegetable sauté that we ate the other night. I know it has umami-rich tomatoes and carrots; I can't vouch for the glutamate content of the other ingredients. All I know is that when you eat it, you too will say ooooooh, mami.
6 Roma tomatoes, blanched, peeled and coarsely chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 Tbsp. butter or olive oil
I yellow pepper, sliced into matchsticks
4 slender zucchini, sliced into rounds
2 carrots, cut into thick matchsticks, blanched until crisp-tender
1/2 pound slender green beans, blanched until crisp-tender
salt and pepper
large handful of fresh cilantro
Heat the butter or oil in a large, deep sauté pan or pot. When the butter or oil is hot, sauté garlic for a few minutes, until it just starts to turn golden. Add tomatoes, and let them cook down a little until they become a chunky, rustic sauce. Add the peppers and cook a few minutes more; add the zucchini and cook another minute. Add the partially-cooked carrots and green beans, and let everything cook together until vegetables are just tender to the tooth -- or to your taste. Season to taste; snip cilantro in with a scissors and stir through to release flavor. Just before serving, taste again and adjust seasoning.