Umami (not to be confused with the mental alertness theory so propounded by Ross in Friends, called Unagi) is a savory taste brought on by glutamates – including the rather “unsavory” monosodium glutamate aka MSG or aji-no-moto. Since the jury is pretty much out there on MSG and several studies have pointed out that it isn’t particularly great for health, there are others ways to get that delightful taste on your tongue using all natural ingredients that are actually healthy for you.
Pining for Parmesan
Everyone no doubt has heard of Parmesan, with its warm, nutty and sometimes even fruity and intense flavor – a much-loved cheese often highly prized when it’s the Parmigiano-Reggiano variety, simply because Parmesan from the Parmigiano-Reggiano is aged for a minimum of two years before reaching the shelves and so it is somewhat of a labor of love. That said, any Parmesan is bursting with umami so whether you grate it over pasta, pizza, sandwiches, salads or soups – the result is always the same. It’s a flavor that your taste buds salivate over and simply cannot forget. And perhaps the reason we so love Italian food – the chefs know all the umami secrets of Parmesan. You can shave and sprinkle Parmesan over just about anything and everything, including popcorn or steamed veggies, and even the leftover rind can add flavor to a simmering curry!
Shying from Shiitake?
Shiitake mushrooms are meaty and burst with all the nom nom of umami, and as a plus they are also good for you considering they are high in iron as well as antioxidants. You can find dried shiitake mushrooms in all Asian aisles and they can be easily rehydrated and added to any meal, adding a lovely smoky flavor, a unique texture, and some much needed bulk. To rehydrate them, you simply need to soak them in warm water for 30 minutes. Strain the mushrooms and use them, and the broth can also be used as stock for a creamy mushroom soup.
My My, Miso
Miso is a staple in Asian cooking. Made from steamed soybeans further fermented with rye, rice, or barley, miso adds nutty undertones and savory umami to everything you add it to. But before you go trigger happy with it, remember that miso is super concentrated and a little goes a long way. You can add miso to soups, Asian curries, pasta, noodles and even make a salad dressing from it. Also remember, miso’s unique flavor loses its charm when overcooked, so remember to add it towards the end. Or just try this fabulous homemade miso soup.
Slurp on Sun-Dried Tomatoes
The other day, someone asked me, “What is the big deal about sun-dried tomatoes?” I choked… Because seriously, the beautiful taste of ripe tomatoes just intensifies a few times over when they are halved and dehydrated under the golden rays of the sun. The best ones to buy are the ones which are loosely packed for they truly retain the flavor. To enjoy this umami, puree them with some cheese or hummus and go crazy over breakfast toast, or use them liberally in pastas, purees, curries and even omelets. You can also bake them into biscuits or bread and even put some in your Wednesday meatloaf!
So Much Soy
Another Asian goody, soy sauce also brims with umami and it’s what makes Chinese fried rice and noodles so irresistible. Frankly, soy is what sends me raiding my refrigerator to address those midnight hunger pangs and just a couple of mouthfuls of cold fried rice or noodles, with their unmistakable salty tang, are enough to give me sweet dreams. Soy sauce is made by fermenting soybeans with wheat and salt, though you can choose to buy the low-sodium versions to be a little more healthful. Personally, I love adding soy sauce to pasta or salad dressing and whipping up a good grilled chicken marinated in soy sauce and orange juice in equal measure…
So basically, you can satisfy those savory and salty cravings in many ways, and these five ingredients can add that elusive taste of umami without you needing to reach for MSG. Happy and healthy eating to you.
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