Pumpkin spaetzle, kale, tomatoes.

I’m going to try to write some blog posts about the basics of food. By no means am I an expert in this area, so it’ll be a learning experience for all of us.

•••

There’s nothing more basic to eating than taste. The sensory experience of food is, in the end, what drives every chef worth his or her salt to pursue excellence and innovation, new and unusual combinations of flavors, basically everything good.

There are five flavors, just like five senses, try to name them: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and… what? That elusive and all-important fifth flavor is called umami, taken from the Japanese word meaning “good-flavored”. Umami is a beautiful thing, abundant in meats (particularly pork) and generally enhancing the flavor of anything else it’s paired with. It’s hard not to describe umami with vague hand-waving and gesticulations, but describing any basic taste encounters similar semantic problems. In the end, it’s the foods that are umami-rich that best define the flavor and provide a foundation for pursuing it in everyday cooking.

Bacon, that smoked, fatty ambrosia, has six different types of the chemicals that produce umami-flavor in your mouth’s taste receptors, making it singular in its ability to elicit guttural and psychological moans of bliss. As if the pig’s natural selection lead it to maximum and generally uncontrollable deliciousness.

Monosodium glutamate, the falsely denigrated Chinese-food additive of lore, has a chemical signature that allows it to mimic umami compounds, thus giving dishes a new dimension of flavor that could not occur without it (or, say, bacon).

So how do you use your newfound umami knowledge in your kitchen. Add fish sauce to everything. Seriously. Aside from bacon, Asian fish sauce is essentially liquid umami. Just a few drops go an incredibly long way and can be the difference between a good dish and an ethereal one. Try it with something simple first, eggs maybe, and then slowly come to realize that it can simply make any savory dish even more so. That $3 bottle of liquid gold will easily pay for itself in deliciousness. Trust me.

Advertisements