Umami: While the origin of the word comes from the Japanese phrase for “pleasant savory taste,” most people will tell you that the flavor of umami is a “meaty” one. Vegetarians and vegans alike are all too aware that many foods rich in this flavor tend to be meats, fish, and shellfish. But scientists have pinpointed the origin of the flavor is derived not from the animal proteins themselves, but from amino acids like glutamates and nucleotides—elements present in a wide variety of foods.
While a quick and easy way to add a hit of umami to any meal is a sprinkle of monosodium glutamate (better known as MSG, a flavor enhancer invented by a Japanese biochemist in 1908 and infamously omnipresent in take-out dishes), some people are known to have adverse reactions to high levels of it. So what’s a plant-eater to do? Look to veggie and vegan-friendly ingredients that will add a layer of complexity to any meal. Here, five that will add umami to any dish.
Mushrooms Superchef David Chang of the Momofuku empire told Lucky Peach that he turned to ground mushrooms in a move to reduce the amount of meat he used in his famously addictive ramen broth. Chang has called powdered, dried shiitake mushrooms “umami dust”, and it’s a powerful, vegetarian, vegan, and paleo-friendly way of adding a delicious dose of umami to any dish. Fresh mushroom have those “meaty” properties we can’t get enough of, too.
Tomato Paste Who doesn’t love tomatoes? Fresh, sundried, raw, or oven-roasted, these ruby beauties are complex and versatile kitchen must-haves. Already rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that beats up immune system enemies, tomatoes become more powerfully concentrated (in both flavor, lycopene, AND umami) the more you cook them. Add a touch of super-concentrated tomato paste to your soups and sauces for that hint of savory goodness.
Parmesan We know—not every parmesan on the market is vegetarian. European-made parm (most often called Parmigiano-Reggiano) must be made with animal rennet, according the tradition-honoring EU laws. But check your labels—there are plenty of readily-available brands that opt instead for “vegetable” or “microbial rennet.” Thanks to a long aging process, this gratable cheese is rich, salty, and packed with that undeniable umami bite. Our advice? Sprinkle it on everything, but especially risottos and pastas.
Soy sauce (and anything fermented) Soy sauce, miso, gochujang, and hundreds of other fermented foods develop deep, flavorful layers of umami as they age. Add a dash of soy sauce to salad dressings for surprising depth. Miso paste can be a welcome substitute for dairy in mashed potatoes, and when swirled into caramel sauce it becomes something adventurous and surprising. Gochujang, a Korean chili paste, can (and should) take the place of sriracha the next time you whip up a stir fry. And for the Celiac-sufferers out there, Liquid Aminos are an unfermented soy sauce alternative without gluten.
Kombu The OG. This dried seaweed is an essential in Japanese kitchens and an attempt to recreate it served as the inspiration for the invention of MSG in 1908. Usually used in delicately-flavored dashis, you can make a deeply-flavored broth that’s the ideal basis for soups using a combination of dried shiitakes and kombu. Bonus: As it grows in the ocean, kombu naturally contains high levels of iodine so it’s perfect for those with lower levels (if you suffer from hyperthyroidism, however, wakame is a lower-iodine seaweed option).
So what will you make now that the power of umami is in your hands? Share in the comments!
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