U M A M I: What is it? What does it taste like? Is it Japanese cartoon character?
We get a lot of inquiries about the definition and concepts of umami at our Oakland shop, so we decided to team up with John over at Oaktown Spice Shop to host an event called "Umami in Spice", to shed light on this elusive layer of flavor. Umami is a glutamic acid discovered in Japan in the early 1900s which is now considered the fifth element of flavor, along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
Umami is a characteristic that evokes a meatiness or savoriness in a dish, that is a bit more difficult to pinpoint than a tart lemon (sour) or a cup of black coffee (bitter). We made sure to have examples of these different tastes, since snacks always help the learning curve. And sake too!
We all packed into Oaktown Spice Shop and John, Kayoko and Yoko went through the history of umami and elaborated on its characteristics. Umami Mart provided five examples in Japanese cuisine that showcased each taste. Here’s the breakdown:
Sweet: yokan (a decadent red bean jelly dessert). The most epic Japanese sweetness
Salty: the delicious (and addictive!) Kogane crackers
Bitter: goya aka bitter melon. Its name alone makes it a fitting example, am I right?
Sour: umeboshi (pickled plum). We spread this potent plum on a sliced cucumber
UMAMI: dried squid and parmesan.
Parmesan?? That’s right! Aged cheeses, cured meats, TOMATO, and mushrooms (black truffles, anyone?) all provide that mouth watering sensation of umami. Not to mention dashi, Worcestershire Sauce, Soy Sauce, breast milk (remember how good that was?!), any cooked meat, BLUE CHEESE (funk-tastic!), potato, broth, and black garlic. There are many, many more items that elicit Umami in our diets.
John provided the following examples of the five taste in the form of spice, from his shop:
Sweet: Saigon cinnamon
Salty: dried celery flakes (stalk)
Bitter: orange zest or fenugreek
Sour: sumac or amchur (dried green mango)
UMAMI: smoked paprika, applewood smoked salt, or asafoetida (smelly onion-garlic-like powder)
If you have yet to visit Oaktown Spice Shop, DO IT! John has curated a room of spices and salts from around the world. He’ll introduce you to different cinnamons and chilis, housemade spice blends(like our Umami Mart Shichimi Togarashi!) and he even made a special Umami Salt. My mouth is watering as we speak.
Umami in Spice was so popular that we added a second night to accommodate the overflow! Thanks for coming out everyone!
Check out the NPR program Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, and... Umami for more background on this fifth taste!
OAKTOWN SPICE SHOP
530 Grand Avenue
Oakland, CA 94610
*If she’s not zipping around the city on her beat up Nishiki, you can most likely find MellyG cruising the aisles of a mercado. Listening to the radio and searching for the perfect snack are the daily duties of this San Francisco native.
**All photographs taken by Melissa D. Gordon