Green Kitchen Tips eating vegan

Published on July 14th, 2010 | by Jeannie Moulton

20

Eating Vegan: Umami

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eating veganumami

What is umami? Learning a bit about this savory aspect of flavor can help make your vegan cooking even more satisfying!

For the vegan-curious, umami knowledge can help you transition from omnivore to herbivore more easily without feeling like you are deprived.  For current vegans, it will make your dishes more savory and keep your friends coming back to your dinner parties.  For those who have no intentions on giving up meat, the right vegetables actually can enhance your meat eating experience.

To understand umami, imagine the feeling of a piece of perfectly seared Portobello mushroom or slowly pan-roasted chicken melting over your tongue.  Even if unseasoned, these have a taste associated with them that cannot be identified as a combination of the four traditional tastes – salty, sweet, bitter or sour.  This taste is called umami.  It is most often associated with a meaty or savory taste and is the taste that generally makes dishes delicious and fulfilling.

Perhaps why most people are turned off by the idea of a vegan diet is the perceived lack of umami.  People need the umami taste to feel satisfied, and since the taste is mostly associated with meat, it is assumed one will feel unsatisfied without meat.  If you’ve had a good vegan dish, you know that savory vegan dishes exist, but what is it exactly that makes them savory?  Scientifically, the amino acid glutamate is responsible for the umami taste and is found naturally in many vegetables, as well as in meats and cheeses.  The “umami-ness” of a particular food can be measured by how much glutamate it contains.  One of the most glutamate-rich vegetables is ripe tomatoes.  Using ripe tomatoes will instantly add fullness to any dish.  Other vegetables that rank high on the glutamate content scale are mushrooms, potatoes, soy beans, carrots and some seaweeds.  Green tea is also high in glutamate.

Instead of using rice mixed with ground beef to stuff peppers, try using brown rice with cooked tomatoes as the filling for a nice comfort dinner.  In place of cheese on a sandwich, use mashed avocado mixed with a dash of soy sauce.  Soy based add-ins like miso and edamame beans will round out a dish.  Drinking green tea or soy milk can help satisfy a craving you can’t pin down.  Umami can also be artificially added through the use of mono-sodium glutamate, a.k.a. MSG (think bouillon cubes), though the safety of MSG is highly debated and the use of fresh vegetables is much more healthful anyway.

The umami experience is best when enhanced by one of the four traditional tastes, so get creative and try some new combinations!

Article reference: Kurihara, K., Glutamate: from discovery as a food flavor to role as a basic taste (umami), American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 90, Sept. 2009, pp. 719S-722S.

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons  by waldopics

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About the Author

I spent the last five years earning my PhD in Engineering. I enjoy all types of science and writing, so I am trying out a new career path in science publication and communication. Recently, I have moved to Oxford, England. As an environmentally-conscious person, Oxford is a great place to live...notably there is no car required. I love to talk about vegan cooking, plant-based diets and the benefits of such, so just ask if you are interested. I do ballet for fun and love kitties.



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  • http://kirstenlamb.net Kirsten Lamb

    Interesting article! I can be satisfied by a meatless meal, but I'm not sure my husband will be won over with a substitution of ripe tomatoes. I'll have to try it.

  • Anuhea

    Umami, monosodium glutamate, is one of the most unhealthy "foods" anyone can ever eat. It is a neurotoxin which pollutes your body and messes with the chemicals in your brain. Why would you want to add it to your diet? Just to make food taste better? To make your food taste better, you simply have to change your way of thinking. It's all in your brain. Adding Umami to your diet can only cause negative side effects. Not one positive thing can come out of adding it to your food. Unless you like the idea of becoming addicted to Umami and prone to diabetes. Umami is just the Japanese word for monosodium glutamate. This is the worst piece of advise I have read in a long while. I hope no one listens to your article, because you have set them up for drug addiction and health problems.

    • Zee

      I agree with everything you said! No way would I want to add that to my healthy vegan diet.

    • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/jlt250 writinginoxford

      The article does not suggest to add MSG to your diet. There is a difference between natural food containing glutamate and MSG. Tomatoes are full of glutamate naturally, and we know they are incredibly healthy for you. The article suggests ways to make your dishes have more fullness through natural food, like tomatoes. It simply mentions MSG (and it's potential danger!).

      Please be clear, umami is not the word for MSG in Japanese. It is the word for a taste describing savoriness, not the chemical.

    • http://vegan.fm Adam Kochanowicz

      *facepalm*

      Umami does not mean "MSG." Umami is a word describing a taste, like "sweet" or "bitter."
      MSG is Umami as sugar is sweet and coffee is bitter.

      This would be like me criticizing someone pushing sweet food by saying that Heroine or some drug also tasted sweet.

      The author is correct in that umami tastes refer to savory flavors rich in amino acids. Soy sauce, for instance, is very umami.

      Also, I don't think "umami" is the japanese word for MSG. Had you done some google searches first, you might have spared yourself the embarassment.

  • Anuhea

    Quote: "Eating Vegan: Don’t Forget the Umami". The article clearly states to add Umami to your dishes. Yes, MSG occurs naturally in nature, however, the abuse of this natural neurotoxin is harmful. And yes, Umami literally translates to savoriness, but growing up in Hawaii and going to the local grocery stores, if you see "Umami" on the shelf, we all know that it is Vetsin, or MSG. I do not see your point "writingoxford". And do you know what other substances the FDA approves of for us to eat that contains the umami-ness of MSG? Google.

    • writinginoxford

      I see that bad marketing has coupled the idea of umami with adding MSG. Think about it this way: Is the only way to achieve sweetness through adding sugar?…or even worse some artificial sweetener? No, sweetness exists naturally in many foods that are healthy for you. In a similar way, while one can achieve umami through adding MSG, it is not necessary and foods exist that naturally have an umami taste.

      Here is a good article explaining more about it: http://www.winegeeks.com/articles/115

      You are incorrect in saying that MSG occurs in nature. It doesn't. MSG is a chemically derived form of the naturally occurring amino acid glutamate. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and necessary for our health. The taste of umami should not be automatically coupled with added MSG. Just because MSG can give the illusion of umami-rich food doesn't mean that the only way to achieve umami is through adding MSG.

      • http://vegan.fm Adam Kochanowicz

        If by "sugar" you mean "sucrose," you're correct. However, I don't know of any other substance which tastes sweet but is not a sugar. Even aspartame and sucralose are sugars.

        • writinginoxford

          Hey Adam. Thanks for your comments. I suppose when I said sugar, I really just meant added refined table sugar (which I guess is sucrose) or some sort of artificial sweetener as opposed to the food naturally containing its own sugars.

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  • http://Web Giselle62

    Tempeh is fermented soybean bars and are very satisfying when fried in a pan with soy sauce. They have a lot of umami to them.

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