Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Fifth Taste (or Confessions of a Savory Lady)...

I think that I’m not unique in the fact that I have had some mighty food obsessions in my lifetime. I don’t mean the sort of psychologically damaging ones – though I think I’ve had my share of those, too – but rather the kind where you can’t stop thinking about how much you love a certain food, about tweaking it with ingredients or preparation or simply obsessing over when you’ll eat it next. Even though it could only loosely be characterized as food, it is clear that I had an intense Frosted Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tart obsession when that was my breakfast nearly every day of fifth grade. (Warning: many of my food obsessions of my youth were non-vegan and questionable in quality.) Every morning, I dropped my Pop-Tart in the toaster, grabbed a plate and, after the bell dinged - the sound of angels trumpeting! - I would dreamily bite into it, reassured each time by its predictability and the way, after a bite or two, the toasted top split like the earth’s crust over the weirdly perfect filling. Occasionally I would have a dalliance within the Kellogg’s family of products with Brown Sugar Cinnamon or even Frosted Raspberry, but they were just brief flings. That year of fifth grade, my heart belonged to the Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tart. Another year, probably sixth or seventh grade, my breakfast every morning was untoasted bread spread thick with peanut butter. An open-faced affair, the peanut butter and bread had the illusion of being healthier than it really was, considering that it was made with Jiff and squishy white bread.

I had probably set the wheels in motion for my food obsessions as a small child with my daily Cream of Wheat (a pat of butter melted into it and swirled around in a big circle like a moat) and then there was my five-year-old lunchtime obsession: what my brother and I called “o-soup” for the can of round noodles bobbing in the salty, yellow broth like mini-life preserves. Various obsessions also included my mother’s blueberry pancakes made from Jiffy muffin mix with the wholly man-made “blueberries” and, mmm, lard-y goodness; bowls of vanilla ice cream mixed vigorously but patiently with a spoon until it was that perfect milky-creamy texture; my grandmother’s latkes with the crispy exterior protecting the meltingly soft interior. There was the granola bar every day freshman year of high school for lunch and the daily egg salad sandwiches (I gag to think about it now) my senior year. Oh, let’s not even talk about the summer of the Fudgsicle. Years after my Pop-Tart obsession, when I had my first apartment as a junior in college and viewed that area near the living room (the room with the oven and refrigerator in it) with suspicion, I discovered that stuffing from a box was not only fool-proof to make but something I could happily eat nearly every night. I would buy multiple boxes week, causing me to be labeled The Stuffing Girl by the cheerful cashier at Kroger’s, and causing my roommate, who already considered some of my habits to be rather odd, to raise an eyebrow of judgment at me every evening. No matter: I had my fix.

This all leads me to my most recent obsession, Brussels sprouts. And umami. Umami has been identified as the fifth taste (along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter) and was discovered by the Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 when he extracted glutamate, an amino acid, from the sea vegetable kombu in order to understand its compelling flavor better. It turned out that many foods with that specific savory flavor (also considered yeasty, salty and broth-y) share that same amino acid and umami quality. Umami adds a subtle savory complexity to a dish and works more at rounding out flavors than standing out on its own but it is an important factor in creating a satisfying dish and meal.

The problem with umami is that it’s most often found in meat, seafood and cheese. It is also found in plant foods, most specifically mushrooms, seaweed and tomatoes, but it is most strongly associated with the savory and salty flavors found in animal products. With my current food obsession, which I’ll get to any minute now, I promise, I realized that it is the umami that has caused me to make this specific dish three times in the last week, and has me anxiously awaiting the next time. Though my early food obsessions revolved around sweet foods, these days I am decidedly a savory lady. Believe me, I will not be turning down a vegan brownie any time soon, but, really, when it all comes down to it, I have been in hot pursuit of umami most of my adult life, chasing after that elusive fifth taste in most of my kitchen experiments and grown up food obsessions.

Thinking about this dish and the sense of genuine umami pleasure it evokes deep inside me has made me wonder if perhaps some of the people who say they “couldn’t” be vegan because they were unsatisfied or missed meat/cheese/fill-in-the-blank too much were really craving more umami in their lives. For most of us who make the commitment to living as vegans, knowing what we know is enough. There are those, though, for whom the transition to be very difficult. It was easy for me, but maybe part of that was that I enjoy cooking and have been unconsciously creating more umami in my life since I first started improvising in the kitchen. Perhaps when people tell us that they made a genuine effort to be vegan but “lacked the willpower “ (something I hear a lot) or “missed cheese too much,” (something I hear even more) we need to help them figure out ways to bring more umami savoriness into their lives. I really don’t think mock-meats are the answer, and I especially don’t think faux cheeses are either, though they can be great transitional items for people, and any time people are consuming fewer animal products, it’s beneficial. I will recommend umami-rich plant sources next time this topic comes up.

Some plant foods that contain the savory umami flavor and enhance it are the following: miso, nutritional yeast, tamari or soy sauce, mushrooms (especially shiitake), tomatoes, sea vegetables (such as kombu), seaweeds, olives, soybeans, vegan Worcestershire sauce, Vegemite and Korean black bean sauce and liquid smoke. These are almost all complements to a dish rather than the main components so many are good to add to foods to heighten the umami effect. For example, using black bean sauce and tamari in a vegetarian stir-fry would help to create a meal that satisfies umami cravings, as does adding just a touch of liquid smoke in homemade hummus – the effect is so utterly delicious to us savory seekers, it’s hard to believe it’s such a simple little addition.

This all leads me to Brussels Sprouts Sliders. I originally saw the idea for it in a Mark (The Minimalist) Bittman New York Times column with quick food ideas for Thanksgiving. He listed 101 such ideas and this was the only one that grabbed me, but it really grabbed me and made me hop on my bicycle and pedal to the grocery store as soon as I could to get what I needed. I’ve adapted it slightly and excluded the meat.

Brussels Sprouts Sliders

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

About twenty large Brussels sprouts, rinsed, trimmed and halved 3 garlic cloves, minced 1 – 2 Tablespoons olive oil Salt and pepper to taste

In a baking pan lined with parchment paper, toss the Brussels sprouts with the olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Roast for about 12 minutes, then stir and roast about seven minutes more. The Brussels sprouts should be soft but not mushy.

Meanwhile, caramelize yourself some onions…

2 sweet or yellow onions, cut into thin half-moons
3 Tablespoons olive oil


Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil, heat for a minute, then add the onions and a sprinkling of salt. Stir frequently, making sure to stir from the bottom of the pan up, to dislodge any sticking onions. They will begin to yellow and shrink in volume, as they darken from yellow to more of a caramel color, lower the heat. Keep cooking until they are at the desired state. This usually takes about twenty minutes and they should be very brown – though not burnt – and sweet when you’re finished cooking them.

Whole grain mustard

Let the onions and the Brussels sprouts cool. When easy to handle, take one half of a Brussels sprout “bun,” smear it with a little mustard, and add a small heap of caramelized onions. Put another Brussels sprout half on top and secure it all with a toothpick. Keep going until all Brussels sprouts are gone. Keep warm in an oven at 250 degrees until serving.

Note: the original recipe suggested bacon or ham in addition to the onions and mustard, which is easy to replicate as a vegan. Smoky tempeh or vegan deli slices would work well, though I like the Brussels sprouts as I described and don’t feel that they are missing anything.

Enjoy yourself on your quest for umami! Please remember that I am a home cook, not a food scientist or a trained chef so this is largely just intuitive. Experiment in the kitchen to find what works for you in satisfying your food obsessions.


  1. I am so with you on this umami obsession. When I first read about it I had a lightbulb go off in my head, 'aa ha, that is the flavor I'm always after.'

    I am a vegan because I love animals, not because I hated the taste of meat. I loved meat so I love anything that can replicate its savory, salty, flavor without all the cruelty and murder.

    Most of the food I REALLY crave has that magical umami wallop that I love so much.

    Olives, nooch, Worcestershire sauce, sea weed especially, soy sauce, mmmm....those are some of my favorite things!

  2. I get food-obsessed, too. I can go days or weeks or months eating the same thing every day. I make the same thing over and over and over again and then I get burned out and I can't even look at it for a while. It happens with healthy things, too. I went crazy with quinoa for a few months and I haven't managed to eat it for a year now.

    So many processed foods that tend to become addictive contain MSG. It's that MSG, the intensified umami, that gets people hooked. It's those foods...mmm, ramen! Doritos! - that I still sometimes miss, even though my body completely freaks out if I try to eat anything like that now.

    Capturing umami is definitely my passion, too. I can't believe that liquid smoke stuff. I use it every day. I keep wondering if it's really possible that it's not a lab-created product of animal torture. It improves the flavor of almost anything.

    I always have a bottle of homemade Worcestershire, and mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms! My kids go crazy for kelp. And nutritional yeast adds something special in so many dishes. (Don't get me started on that six straight weeks of noochy popcorn...) Lately chipotle is my fix. I really don't miss animal products - or processed snack foods - as long as I'm getting plenty of umami.

  3. Thanks for this recipe!!!! I've been trying to figure out what to do with all my extra brussel sprouts!

  4. Hey, VV - You are a woman after my own heart, clearly...

    Chandelle, I've had the same thing with quinoa. Also, interestingly, the man who discovered umami also created MSG. And, yes, liquid smoke...drool...The brand I buy is called Colgin and it actually says the word "vegan" on the label, and that it's made in some Texas smokehouse. Doesn't mean that it's not carcinogenic, though. ;) Love nooch as well. I agree that as long as my savory umami needs are met, there are no untoward cravings. (Actually, I never have craved meat but I think it's because umami is so front-and-center in my diet.

    You're welcome, Stephanie! It's a wonderful recipe, I promise...

  5. This looks delicious! Would they make good finger food for a potluck? I have a pot luck staff party and I want to give my colleagues some good vegan food to show that it isn't a bland diet.

  6. Hey, BF - They would make great hors d'oeuvre, I think. I brought tme as part of what I contributed to our annual Thanksgiving potluck and everyone was asking about them. They are chock full o' flavor and rather cute at that. :)

  7. This is interesting. I had never heard of umami before. (Judging by google a lot of other people heard about it before me.) Thank you.

  8. I can really identify and I love this recipe. Thanks for leading me to it :)


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