The Gardening Guy
Umami is the fifth flavor we humans can detect, along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. It is much more difficult to describe or quantify than the 4 standard flavors because we haven’t been raised to recognize it. I call it the flavor of contentment. The Japanese translate it, roughly, as “deliciousness.”
Scientists have determined that there are receptors in our taste buds that are stimulated by umami, just as there are for salty or sweet. They send signals to our brain that says, “Oh boy, something really good is here!” The orbitofrontal cortex (right above the eyes) registers a highly pleasant sensation. Yum, it says.
The umami flavor is created when certain amino acids that contribute to protein formation are present, notably glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. Seaweeds are highest in these components, but seafood, meats and certain vegetables contain them, too. Oh, and it is found in breast milk. Maybe that’s why we like it.
So what vegetables contain natural glutamate? Ripe tomatoes are highest of ordinary vegetables, which does not surprise me at all. Actually, dried tomatoes are even better because most of the water is gone. What else? Garlic, green peas and corn are excellent, as are beans, potatoes and carrots. Does that sound like a list of comfort foods? It does to me.
Mushrooms and fermented foods like soy sauce are good umami producers, as is cheese. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is particularly high, but cheddar is good, too.
If you want the highest level of flavor in your foods, grow it yourself. Pick your tomatoes dead ripe. That’s when the levels of umami-producing amino acids are at their highest.
Busy people say they have no time for a vegetable garden. Perhaps. But if you know that you can grow food that is super tasty, maybe you’d find some time. Here are 5 ways to get your umami-rich foods without dedicating your life to them.
- Get a big self-watering pot and plant one “patio tomato” in it. This pot should be roughly the size of a 5-gallon pail and have a water reservoir so it won’t dry out if you forget to water for a few days. Or go to the beach for the weekend. Fill it with a 50-50 mix of compost and potting soil. Put it in full sun in the middle of your lawn or along the driveway.
- Shitake mushrooms are very high in umami. I have inoculated hardwood logs with spore plugs that eventually produce shitakes. But it’s sort of like fishing, you never know when your logs will produce, or for how many years. But now companies are producing mushroom kits that come ready to go. Most of those are one-time kits that produce just one flush of mushrooms, but they’re easy.
- Potatoes are some of the easiest veggies to grow, and are good umami producers. If you want to tear up a 10-foot by 12-foot patch of lawn, you can become potato self-sufficient – for a year! You can build wide raised beds with a walkway down the middle and a little free space around the edges. Plant seed potatoes 18 inches apart and you can grow a lot of food.
- Then there is the VegTrug. I had one last summer and loved it. About 6 feet long and 2.5 feet wide, it is a nice cedar planting trough on legs that is V-shaped in cross-section, so it is deep enough for tomatoes or potatoes. And you don’t have to bend over to pull weeds or harvest herbs. I grew lots of lettuce, herbs and one tomato. I got mine from Gardener’s Supply (gardeners.com or 888-833-1412).
- Visit your local farm stand, farmers market or, better yet, sign up now for a CSA. You don’t actually have to grow your own food just to get fresh produce at the peak of its flavor and ripeness.
The fact that we have receptors that are just for umami tells me that umami is something that is good for us. After all, our mouth also tells us when something is not good for us. We have evolved to recognize foods that are healthy. We respond well to sweets and fats because eons ago we needed calories to stay alive. Now, of course, we need to stay away from too much of those.
All this says you could and should grow your own food, and then cook it from scratch. I have written more than once that “Tomatoes are the queen of the garden.” In August I eat ripe tomatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Why? I guess all this time I thought it was free will. Now I know it is an addiction to – or an affinity for – umami. Now is the time to plan your garden for the summer.