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Who would have thought monosodium glutamate (MSG) would come back into fashion? You’ll find it on the souschef website, described as umami powder, a cult ingredient. “Try adding a pinch to soups, stews and sauces to add extra body and depth” reads the copy.
What is umami?
It means ‘pleasant savoury taste’ in Japanese. Until 1907, there were thought to be only four basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then a Japanese chemist called Kikunae Ikeda identified a fifth which occurs naturally in a variety of everyday foods and is imparted by glutamates and ribonucleotides. By isolating sodium glutamate, he created MSG.
Am I likely to have tasted umami?
Yes, if you were breast-fed, have tasted Marmite, asparagus, steak with mushrooms, or pasta with a rich tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese.
Do consumers understand the word?
Increasingly. Christopher Dawson, CEO of Clearspring, says, “Foodie influencers are using the term and popularising it amongst an engaged foodie audience.” TV chef Tom Kerridge talks of “big umami flavours” as he blends white miso and porcini powder into his umami butter. May’s Good Housekeeping magazine describes a recipe for Miso aubergine noodles as “packed with rich umami depth’”. You can now buy Kallo’s Umami vegetable stock cubes at Tesco and U-Me Umami spice shots at Sainsbury’s.
What’s behind the trend?
Key drivers are plant-based eating, wellness and interest in world cuisines. Glutamate-rich ingredients such as seaweed and dried shiitake mushrooms give meat and dairy-free dishes a flavour leg-up while fermented foods like miso, kimchi and pickles are associated with wellness. During the Tokyo Olympics, Waitrose reported a 10% uplift (year on year) in sales of Japanese ingredients.
I thought MSG, also known as E621, was a bad thing?
There’s only anecdotal evidence for MSG allergy but allergy-prone or older customers who remember ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ may be wary. So read packaging carefully. Clearspring avoid this controversial ingredient. It’s ironical that LGM crispy chilli oil, a buzz product with younger foodies, contains manufactured umami or MSG.
Isn’t umami just another word for saltiness?
No. Naturally-occurring glutamate brings out the sweetness and saltiness in a dish without increasing salt content. It can contribute up to 50% salt reduction in foods while retaining desirability.
How else is it helpful?
While eating sugar appears to increase the craving for carbs, eating umami may drive the appetite for protein-rich foods - useful in coaxing elderly people with failing appetites to eat.
I’ve read that aged cheese and cured meats are rich in umami compounds. Is that right?
Yes, that’s why one slim slice of Parma ham or a heel of Parmesan in a vegetable soup gives tremendous savoury depth.
Marmite and Worcestershire sauce work well, too.
Absolutely, and in 2020, an estimated 6.7m people used Marmite (Statista). If Marks & Spencer can sell Marmite and cheese hot cross buns, so you can try Marmite and cheese scones in your café. We spotted Joe and Seph’s gourmet Marmite popcorn at Selfridges.
Instead of the ubiquitous Lea & Perrins sauce, why not try Henderson’s Relish. At IFE in March, interest from deli owners was keen. We can’t believe that this modern-looking product with its black lettering on orange labels dates from 1885. It contains no anchovies so is vegan and is popular in Japan.
What’s Umami paste?
A handy product with which cooks can add a pop of flavour to underwhelming dishes. It’s a concentrate of glutamate-containing ingredients such as soy sauce, mushrooms and tomato. Helen Best-Shaw of the fussfreeflavours website swears by Clearspring’s Ginger and miso umami paste and puts “a big blob into dressings to perk up a boring salad”. Food writer Orland Murrin favours Laura Santtini’s La Bomba Tomato Puree.
How do umami foods like miso help in plant-based cooking?
Miso imparts deep savouriness to broths, dressings and roasted vegetables. Customers still need some hand-holding so provide recipes on your blog and display cookbooks such as those by Bonnie Chung of Miso Tasty.
Which brands should I stock?
To steal a march on the supermarkets, go for novelty as with Clearspring’s new Chickpea Miso, or choose products which deliver a double whammy such as the award-winning Black Garlic Miso from Craic Foods. Craic also make three miso-and-salted-caramel sauces; the sweet-savoury combination is hard to resist.
Luxuries like these make great foodie gifts. We were very pleased with a present of Delizie al Tartufe (black) Truffle Sauce – £6 for 80g – and have already repeat-purchased. The importer is Arrosto Meats Ltd of Fulham.
Will the trend last?
Clearspring’s Christopher Dawson says, “The adventurous foodie is experimenting with how umami can enhance everyday dishes. We want to take it to a much wider audience. There’s lots of potential.”
Once we’ve mastered Umami, we can move on to the Sixth Taste, Kokumi. Seriously. They discovered it in the 1980s.