“Chickity China the Chinese Chicken . . . you have a drumstick and your brain starts clickin ”
Umami is the “5th taste” perception after salt, sweet, sour and bitter – delicious savouriness. There is something irresistibly moreish about Umami flavouring which is why we love ketchup, rich gravy, caramelised meat juices, cheese (Parmesan) and cured meats. Combinations of these ingredients are especially attractive to our taste – think of a slow cooked bolognese sauce with caramelised beef, rich tomato and cheese topping. The same trick is used with mushrooms – dried varieties such as Porcini and Shiitake super-concentrate the Umami flavours to turbo-boost stocks and stews.
Particularly important in Eastern cuisine it was first described in 1908 by a Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda. He noted that Umami flavouring was particularly prominent in Dashi – the fundamental rich base stock used in Japanese cooking to make things like Miso soup, made from Kombu (kelp seaweed). It was the Glutamate (an Amino acid building block for protein) which was responsible and this led to the commercial production of the flavour enhancing MSG (Mono-sodium Glutamate). MSG is an infamous ingredient in processed or low quality fast foods to enhance our desire to eat that food.
Why might we crave Umami (or Glutamate) from an evolutionary perspective? Similar taste drives or avoidances are obvious – sugar for calories, salt because electrolytes are fundamental to our physiology (both not as accessible traditionally as in the modern world) and bitterness to avoid poisons. Perhaps because Umami flavours tend to develop through cooking, preservation or fermentation processes which releases the amino acids and this was more desirable from an evolutionary perspective due to the reduced risk of toxins in raw foods (no fridges or hygiene in the caveman days)? Perhaps because it signifies a source of important protein (Glutamate is one of the most abundant naturally-occurring amino acids)?
At Cardiologist’s Kitchen we love Umami flavours because they are delicious but importantly we can use this concept to enhance the flavour of healthy meals/ingredients without resorting to the other flavours we find satisfying – namely excess sweet and salty. This is illustrated in our Chinese Chicken dish which packs delicious Umami savoury flavours via caramelised chicken, mushrooms, tomatoes and soy sauce (a classic fermented Umami flavour along with fish sauce, oyster sauce and anchovies in the West).
Importantly the stir-fry is cram-packed with vegetables and so we use the same trick as usual – lots of veg which allows us to have a modest portion (1/3 of your plate only) of white rice. If you want to be extra healthy you can replace the rice with quinoa although it should be noted that in terms of white rice, Basmati is relatively good with a moderate glycaemic profile. We recommend you pair with a side dish of veg such as some simple steamed pak-choi with a little soy sauce dressing.