Many vegetarians fall into the habit of dousing their food with sauces, salts, and spicy peppers to amp up the flavor. But there's an alternative to sodium and mouth-numbing heat to perk up everything from tofu to lentils—umami.
Umami, the “fifth taste,” emerged over a century ago, when Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo, posed that the flavor of dashi, a Japanese soup base, was subtly but surely distinct from sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. He found the presence of a naturally occurring amino acid, glutamate, in the ingredient, and dubbed the taste umami—Japanese for delicious.
In the early 1980s, Americans started to recognize umami, although it wasn’t until the new millennium that it became a prominent adjective to describe the eyebrow-raising effect of sautéed mushrooms, and the addictiveness of seaweed snacks. That’s umami in full effect.
It’s quite possibly the most transcendent taste there is. Savory without being salty, it can be hard to put your finger on, but can elevate just about any dish without adding heaping amounts of sodium.
For some people who try to give up meat but can’t shake their craving for it, it’s the umami flavor—found in the savoriness of many animal proteins—that’s often missing. The good news is, infusing umami into vegetarian dishes is really simple. Here are five foods that can take a meatless meal to the next level.
What’s a french fry without ketchup? It all boils down to the natural occurrence of glutamate in tomatoes. To get a sophisticated taste of umami, try spicy eggs in purgatory—a fiery vegetarian one-pot meal.
A simple tapenade using black olives is a delightful pairing for grilled zucchini. Want double the umami? Try this gluten-free tapenade tart with roasted tomatoes.
Parmesan is one of the most umami ingredients, but vegans don’t get the pleasure of tasting it. Nutritional yeast is strangely cheesy and salty, but totally free of animal products. Sprinkling it on food can amp up macaroni or kale chips without adding cheese.
Seaweed snacks are the best thing since sliced bread... especially for those who follow a Paleo or Pegan diet. (Some types even taste like bacon.) There are tons of great ways to use sea vegetables aside from snacking on them. To make an amazing umami seasoning, crumble up some toasted nori and combine it with sesame seeds, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, and a little bit of sea salt.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont