Oh, Mama! Umami!

Umami is one of those things that's just flat-out fun.
Umami on EdgyPlate

We all know about the four tastes, right? No, we’re not talking about NPR and PBS v. Duck Dynasty and NASCAR but rather salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Those tastes. Anyway, turns out there’s actually a fifth, and that is umami, which is the Japanese word for delicious or tasty — “pleasant, savory taste” is the literal translation, according to our very own Rebel Nakano. Rebel steered us to http://www.foodabletv.com/blog/2014/4/15/ingredients-millennials-are-talking-about-the-rise-of-umami, where we gleaned some fascinating facts.

Did you know, for instance, that umami was discovered in 1908 “as the result of the tedious work of Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo.” Seems Ikeda had discerned a “certain recognizable yet undistinguishable element of taste in particular foods including asparagus, tomatoes, and kelp, the latter of which he studied in great detail.” Aha. But the plot, like the soup, thickens. Ikeda went on to find that these particular foods have a “high concentration of the amino acid glutamate.”

That flavor was replicated in a little something we like to call MSG, which was marketed for years as a magical, mystical flavor enhancer – right up to the point when it was reported that MSG was actually not so good for you and was believed to be excitotoxic. Look it up. Asian eateries started posting that they didn’t use MSG, and people with migraines were able to venture back inside.

Anyway, must recently that long-held conclusion was countered with yet another assertion that MSG is NOT an excitotoxin. You can read that at http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/msg-myth-versus-science/ and then decide for yourself.

In the meantime, let’s look at some MSG-free examples of umami, starting with mmmmmmmm bacon. It and other “cured pork products,” or what we call “porkasmic yumminess,” are at the top of the umami charts. Mushrooms come next, especially the shiitakes. And if you combine shiitakes with sweet potatoes, mama mia you got some umami!

“Potatoes, in general, are a very umami-rich food, as are carrots. Matured beef (think beef jerky) contains a significant amount of glutamate. And when people started pairing plain old ground beef with cheese and ketchup, à la the cheeseburger, a match made in umami heaven was unknowingly born.”

So of course an enterprising fellow named Adam Fleischman decided, hey, why not capitalize on this umami nirvana? So in 2009 he opened Umami Burger in Los Angeles. Of course he did.

“He was striving to create what he deemed the ‘ultimate umami bomb’ in a layered burger that also had an ideal b-to-b (bun-to-burger) ratio. The original recipe includes a 6-ounce patty made from ground local steaks cooked and seasoned with ‘Umami Dust,’ [EdgyPlate: We don’t know what it is…] oven-roasted tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, ‘Umami Ketchup,’ and a Parmesan crisp, all sandwiched between a Portuguese-style roll.”

Fleischman’s baby went bonkers and is now franchised with more than 20 stores in California and more opening in Las Vegas, Miami and NYC.

Not unlike Bigfoot, umami sightings are everywhere. On the best menus you’ll find umami condiments such as pickled mushrooms, french fries with ketchup or, better yet, topped with beer-infused cheddar cheese (an umami tsunami) and now, thanks to mixologist Steve Livigni, in a beer-based cocktail called Michamami. A little light umami reading at http://www.starchefs.com/features/umami-in-cocktails/html/index.shtml.

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