Lately I’ve been experimenting a lot with Asian ingredients, and I have a newfound respect for them. It used to take me 3 years to go through a bottle of soy sauce, partly because I was under the false impression that sprinkling a little on rice should make it taste like Chinese food and, well, it doesn’t. After doing a little research, I started to understand how to reap the rewards of Asian ingredients. And at the risk of sounding like an obnoxious foodie, I will tell you I am currently obsessed with the notion of umami, which describes a particular kind of flavorfulness, and would like to convince you that you should be too. My husband even teases me now when he sits down to eat food I’ve prepared, saying, “OMG, this is sooo UMAMI!” So today I thought I would take you on a little journey through the science of taste, and show you how you can boost your cooking and make healthy foods as appealing as possible- useful when cooking for both children and adults.
As a cook, I know I have succeeded when I take a taste of whatever I’m cooking and I get an immediate sense of pleasure. Even with a good recipe, I don’t always get it on the first taste, and sometimes find that a certain depth of flavor or balance is lacking. There are several things one can do to remedy the situation when your soup tastes a little flat or your sauce is just not quite right. But first I will back up just a bit. To give you a quick, unscientific overview of my understanding of flavor, there are several ways to achieve depth and roundness of flavor. In Western cooking, some of the widely used tools for achieving a deep flavor are: onions and garlic (aromatics); caramelizing meat before adding liquid (thus creating either a stock or pan sauce); long cooking times; and the addition of flavorful fats, such as olive oil, cream, or butter at the end. Asian cooking, on the other hand, is quite different, and tends to quickly create flavorful food through the use of high heat, a few intensely flavored prepared ingredients, and an excellent understanding of the palate. I once spoke to the owner of a Vietnamese restaurant who said that the key to Vietnamese cooking was in the balance of sweet, sour, salty, and and spicy. Hence the classic Vietnamese dipping sauce Nuoc Cham, made of lime juice (sour), sugar (sweet), fish sauce (salty) and chili (spicy). Add to that the variety of texture and flavors in a shrimp spring roll with mint, and you get a riot of sensation. It seems like each Asian cuisine has its own recipe for building a flavor base. In Chinese cuisine, there is soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and dried mushrooms. Thai curries are built on a simple but brilliant combination of curry paste, lime juice, coconut milk, sugar, and fish sauce. In Japanese cooking, there is mirin, soy sauce, miso, and dashi, a stock made from seaweed and dried, aged fish flakes. Asian cooks, it seems, are well aware of how to quickly create a delicious, healthy dish, and we can certainly learn a thing or two from them.
One thing all Asian cuisines seem to maximize is the taste experience called umami, a Japanese term coined at the beginning of the 20th century. Umami refers to a sort of earthy, savory, or meaty quality that foods can have, and scientists now know that there is a scientific basis to this. It comes from amino acids called glutamates, which occur naturally in a wide variety of foods, but are especially concentrated in meats, mushrooms, tomatoes, aged or cured products, and stocks. Note that this list covers all of the things mentioned in the flavor-building techniques of both Western and Asian cuisines that I listed above.
If you look at Asian ingredients, with their rows of fermented sauces, dried fish, and toasted sesame oils, you can see a downright obsession with flavor, and particularly glutamates. Even Shizuo Tsuji in his classic 1980 overview of Japanese cuisine Japanese Cooking, a Simple Art, discusses them. He warns not to wash konbu, and to score it lightly, “so that the glutamatic acid is easily released.” As I read a bit more about this umami business, I became intrigued. Food technology journals discuss it quite extensively as a way of understanding flavor, and it is in one of them that I learned that, in the natural world, “Foods and beverages at their peak, and those that are aged, dried, cured, fermented, roasted, or toasted are rich in umami.” (Jacqueline Marcus) An experienced cook knows that every one of those is a method for making food more complex and more delicious. Naturally, of greatest interest to the food technology world is the way that taste sensation can be can be quickly and inexpensively produced, which is generally in the form of Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG. I think MSG has probably been unfairly demonized (more on that in a moment) but I find it nonetheless unfortunate that in our country the people most informed about the science of taste seem to be the ones who work in the labs of processed food companies and not at home. And yet there is so much for the home cook to take from the science of umami! Here are my thoughts:
- If you’re beginning a recipe, don’t forget that high heat and browning is an important way of building flavor. In this case, water is the enemy so be sure to pat chicken breasts dry or allow mushrooms to leech all their water and turn golden before moving on. Roasting is also a fantastic way to boost flavor in so many foods, especially vegetables. Roasting sliced brussels sprouts, broccoli, and even green beans until brown makes them irresistible.
- When cooking more Western-style dishes such as meats with a sauce, casseroles, or soups, there are a number of simple additions that can increase umami. Aged parmesan cheese is well-known as an exceptional flavor-enhancer. If you’re looking for a non-dairy replacement for parmesan, nutritional yeast flakes, available in the bulk bins of natural foods stores, are an interesting substitute; And don’t ignore the usefulness of bouillon (as an addition to, not replacement for fresh ingredients). The types you find in US grocery stores tend to be limited but if you check the Hispanic foods aisle, you are likely to find the best selection. One of the reasons why bouillon cubes add flavor is because of the MSG they contain. MSG, you say??!! But MSG is evil! Well, I have spent some time looking into this issue and it seems that the serious science behind this claim is thin at best. Some people think that natural glutamic acid from fermentation, for example, is different from manufactured MSG, but chemically it appears to be the same. (And Psssht…it’s in a LOT of things already…) So you can make your own decision, but I often amp up the flavor of a chicken dish with a little chicken bouillon powder, or you could purchase an all-purpose seasoning such as Vegeta. There’s also Worcestershire sauce, another good product for boosting savoriness. Just be careful to exercise restraint on salt before you add those things, since they contain salt.
- Asian cuisines are also a goldmine for achieving that deliciousness. Soy sauce, fish sauce, smoked bonito flakes, dried mushrooms, toasted sesame oil, miso, and I could go on. In the case of Asian ingredients, though, start out by following recipes, so you can get a sense for how to dose them and how best to combine them in a recipe. Indiscriminately drenching your food in strongly flavored sauces will definitely not give you the result you want.
Finally, here are just a few umami-filled recipes that I hope you’ll enjoy. The first recipe is for a Japanese chicken dish that is perfect for weeknights. I based it loosely on a recipe called Chikuzen Chicken in Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. There are a couple of new ingredients you will need to get if you don’t usually buy Asian staples, but nothing you can’t find in the Asian aisle of Whole Foods. The original recipe calls for cooking until all the water has evaporated, but I found it was nice to leave a little broth. You could add a little extra dashi stock if you wanted even more liquid. Either way would be good. This recipe is very kid-friendly, and my son loved the broth. The second recipe is for a vegetarian burger that I love. Veggie burgers are full of promise in my opinion. While I love me a good burger, there are lots of times when I want the burger experience without the meat, and it seems like the possibilities would be endless for creating it. And yet all too often, I find veggie burgers downright depressing- something like solidified birdseed on a tough, grainy bun, and garnished with a few sad sprouts. Well, I am here to set things straight. This veggie burger is AWESOME. But in order to get the full effect, the garlic mayo is NOT optional! Finally, I’ll give you a recipe for a veggie bowl that a friend of mine made for me recently. It comes from a book called Whitewater Cooks by Canadian chef Shelley Adams. It’s a kind of warm grain salad with vegetables and a dressing that would probably taste good over shoe leather. It’s a really delicious, healthy, and colorful vegan dish.
Japanese Stewed Chicken
- 1 lb boneless skinless chicken meat (I like tenders, but get whatever you like), cut into chunks
- 1 cup dried shitake mushrooms, or other mushrooms
- 1 1/2-2 cups other vegetables, such as snow peas, English peas, carrots, or potatoes (carrots and potatoes should be diced fairly small to reduce cooking time)
- 1 1/2 cups dashi (Instant dashi is available in packages in the Asian foods section)
- 5 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp sugar
Pre-heat a frying pan on high heat. Sear the chicken pieces in a bit of vegetable oil until nicely browned on one side. Next add carrots and/or potatoes if using and toss for a couple of minutes. Add mushrooms, dashi, soy sauce, and sugar and lower heat. Simmer for 12 or 15 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through. Add peas, if using, and simmer an additional 2 or 3 minutes.Remove from heat and cool slightly. I like to shred the chicken a bit before serving so it fully absorbs the broth.
Umami Veggie Burger with Garlic Mayo Based on Dana Slatkin’s version of the Umami Burger restaurant’s Earth Burger Patties:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- vegetable oil for pan frying
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 pound mushrooms, chopped
- 1/4 cup dried mushrooms from the Asian market, such as shitake (optional)
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 1/4 cup water, stock and/or liquid from dried mushrooms, if using
- 2 tbsp white miso paste
- 1/2 teaspoon bouillon powder or crushed bouillon cube (chicken, mushroom, vegetable, or dashi are fine)
- 1 cup shelled edamame beans (thawed frozen are fine)
- 1 cup plain bread crumbs
- 2 tsp hoisin sauce or other sweet, thick Asian sauce, plus extra for brushing
- 4 hamburger buns, lightly oiled or buttered and toasted
- 1/3 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1-2 large cloves garlic, crushed
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan until very hot. Cook the onions and mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8 minutes. Be sure to wait until all of the water has evaporated and the vegetables begin to brown.
Next add the white wine, miso paste, and bouillon over the mushrooms to deglaze, stirring up the browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until the liquid has almost evaporated. Transfer the mushroom mixture to the bowl of a food processor.
Add the edamame, bread crumbs, and hoisin sauce and pulse until chopped well but not pulverized. Transfer the burger mixture to a bowl to refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Form the mixture into six 1/2-cup patties. Brush the burgers on one side with hoisin sauce. Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add a generous layer of oil. Once hot, add the patties, being careful not to overcrowd, and cook until they are well browned on each side, 3-4 minutes per side. When flipping them over, note that they will be a bit fragile. Transfer the burgers to a plate and place in a warm oven while you finish the other burgers. More oil will be necessary before each batch. Brown the buns briefly in the skillet. Place them on the serving plates with the burgers, spread with Garlic Mayonnaise, and place any toppings (sliced onion or tomato) on top.
“Glory Bowl” (recipe adapted from Canadian Living Magazine)
- 1 package cubed extra-firm tofu (you can also use tempeh or other vegetarian protein)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 4 cups cooked brown rice
- 1 cup grated or finely chopped carrots
- 1 cups grated beets
- 2 cups packed baby spinach leaves
- 1 cup slivered almonds, toasted
- 1/2 cup nutritional yeast flakes
- 1/3 cup Tamari or soy sauce
- 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup water
- 2 tbsp tahini
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 cup vegetable oil