I’ve been eating all my life and, I hate to brag, I’m quite skilled. Until recently, I thought I knew pretty much everything there is to know about the way things taste. Salty, sweet, bitter and sour; each respective segment of my tongue has always expertly identified the taste for which it is responsible. But, as I became more adventurous with eating and cooking creatively, the more I noticed there was a hard-to-describe taste that made all my taste buds swoon with delight. Mysterious and multidimensional, this flavor explosion certainly wasn’t one of the four specifically designated taste receptors I studied in elementary school.
Well, it turns out, in addition to salty, sweet, bitter and sour, there is a fifth taste receptor called umami. Umami (oo-MA-mee) is a Japanese word that literally means “delicious essence,” and rightfully so. It has been described as a mouthwatering flavor that washes over the entire tongue with a savory, meaty and indescribable . . . delicious essence! Umami is not confined to certain taste areas on the old-school diagram of the tongue but, instead, interacts synergistically with all of them. In scientific terms, umami is the taste of glutamates (the salts of an amino acid) and other small molecules called nucleotides. That’s right, it’s complicated; people have devoted their lives to researching the enigmatic yet amazing taste of umami.
However, you don’t need an advanced degree to succeed in the world of umami. Simply pairing foods that each have a high umami factor creates a magnified flavor profile based on their combined “synergy.” That’s why dishes like steak and mushrooms or Greek salad with feta cheese and ripe tomatoes blend so blissfully. As a rule of thumb, ingredients that have been ripened, fermented, cured or aged are extremely high in umami compounds. If you have been cooking with ingredients like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, wine, broth, eggs, nuts, aged cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and red meats, you may already be enjoying the power of umami. Of course, this is not a full list of umami-rich ingredients, just some popular ones.
To celebrate this fifth taste receptor in a way that will make you jump up and say “Umami Mia,” I’ve whipped together an easy grilled pizza recipe that is elegant enough to serve as a palate-pleasing prelude to the main course at a dinner party – although, I make it for a fast, fabulous weeknight meal. To get the umami merrymaking started, Blue Cheese Crumbles from Litehouse Foods, thinly-sliced prosciutto (dry-cured ham) and fig jam mix and mingle on a ready-to-go Naan bread crust. Enjoy!