The Legend of Umami
I first heard about the concept of umami when I was helping to open a Japanese restaurant a few years back. During our training, the chef was telling us about the Japanese word umami, which is the “fifth taste.” After sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, what is left? What is the taste that will truly satiate? Apparently it is umami, which loosely translates to “pleasantly savory.” Fair enough.
Umami seems to be a rather intangible concept. If you so desire, take a look at its Wikipedia article, which has all sorts of tips on what foods contain “high amounts of umami” and uses a lot of science-y terms that overwhelm me. To me, umami is my unicorn of the food world. It has a mystical appeal, only made more desirable by the fact that I don’t know if I fully understand or believe in it. But am intrigued by its powers.
A small restaurant chain in LA, unsurprisingly named Umami Burger, has attempted to harness the power of umami. Many of my California friends rave about it. On the cover of the June issue of Food & Wine there is an amazing-looking burger; Patrick and I decided we had to make it, and upon inspection of the recipe, discovered it was an Umami Burger with Port and Stilton. Perfect!
I mandated that we had to follow the recipe as closely as possible, meaning it was time to craft a batch of umami powder. A jaunt to the Asian grocery wonderland of Uwajimaya provided us with bonito, kombu, and dried shiitake. I was slightly skeptical that the addition of these three ingredients would somehow take our burgers into another dimension of taste, but who knows? In any case, I was excited to find out what this concoction had in store.
Once we procured the rest of our burger ingredients from Whole Foods, we headed home to make our umami powder. We ran the three components through an old coffee grinder (who actually owns a specialty spice grinder? Not I) and here was the result:
We agreed it looks kind of like fish food, and definitely smells like it (thanks, bonito!) We tasted the straight umami powder, and it was… a bit underwhelming? I will say it was earthy, woodsy, salty, and had depth. But it wasn’t what I would call a tastebud revelation or anything. We decided, just to be on the safe side, to mix extra umami into our raw patties as well as sprinkling it onto the cooked meat at the very end, as the recipe directs.
How were our umami burgers? Well, DELICIOUS. All-caps DELICIOUS. But was it the umami powder or the other elements? I mean, high-quality ground beef, locally baked brioche bun, stilton cheese, port wine reduction and umami? Regardless of the powder, all these elements made a damn fine burger. I highly recommend this recipe as a summer treat, perfect for taking your cookout to the next level and impressing all your friends. Note the black specks on and around the burger, that’s our powder.
In the week following, we experimented with our remaining umami powder. It was mixed into Cup O’ Noodles (verdict: “more satisfying”), organic butternut squash soup, and sprinkled on heirloom tomatoes. One day I made a tunami (tuna + umami) salad sandwich for lunch, which tasted more fishy than normal. BUT my question is, how do we know our minds aren’t just playing tricks on us? “Is it all a placebo effect?!” I texted Patrick anxiously.”I’m eating an apple with with my sandwich and I feel like it’s fishy. Like my tongue is infused with umami. But maybe it’s all in my head?!” Pat says it’s like a person experimenting with drugs: “Are you feeling anything? I think I feel different? What am I supposed to be feeling?!”
So I guess we are just chasing the umami dragon and we may never catch the ultimate flavor high we seek. Have my mind and palate been expanded? Enriched? And I don’t even realize it because I have become one with umami?