When I was growing up, science textbooks explained to us that there were four basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty and bitter. There were different taste buds attuned to each one, and anything we could taste with our tongues was made up of some combination of the four.
Even during my childhood, however, this was out-of-date information. As long ago as 1904, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda had discovered a fifth taste, which he identified with a Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste,” umami. It took until 1985 for the term to be scientifically recognized worldwide, however.
Umami is often described as a “meaty” taste, and it’s present in things like meat, mushrooms, tomato and beans. Scientifically, it represents a famiily of chemicals called glutamates. Umami-rich ingredients like soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce pair well with things like meat because they complement the natural umami flavor in the meat itself.
A couple of weeks ago, I got the pleasure of interviewing my favorite food writer, Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats, to promote his new book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. The story will run in this
Wednesday’sThursday’s T-G. To go along with the interview, I picked out a few of Kenji’s representative recipes from Serious Eats. Most used pretty standard ingredients – which is a good thing when you’re writing for a rural community – but the meatloaf recipe called for Marmite as an umami booster.
I have long been curious about Marmite (a British condiment) and its Australian cousin Vegemite. Lately, I had been thinking that on my next drive into Murfreesboro, I might try to buy a jar of Marmite from World Market at The Avenue.
But over the weekend, I happened on a whim to look for Marmite on Amazon and ended up ordering a jar. Because it’s actually being shipped from the UK, it won’t get here until next month, but the cost was quite reasonable for a specialty condiment. (I saw honey and hot sauce selling for much higher prices at the Webb craft fair last weekend in Bell Buckle.)
Vegemite and Marmite, as I understand it, are cousins but not identical. Both are made from spent brewer’s yeast, and both are quite salty and have very polarizing, love-them-or-hate-them flavors. Marmite is more syrupy, Vegemite more pasty. Either, and again all this is by reputation because I’ve never tried them, is best enjoyed in small quantities – spread very, very thinly on a piece of bread or toast. I have read that the reason non-Australians find Vegemite so disgusting is that they sample it by tasting a spoonful – and that’s not the way it’s meant to be eaten.
Most of my generation, of course, knows Vegemite from the lyrics to Men At Work’s “Down Under”: “He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.”
Many chefs on Food Network and Cooking Channel will use anchovies as an umami booster in dishes like pasta sauce. They always fall over themselves reassuring you that the finished dish won’t smell or taste like anchovies – you’re just using a little bit, chopping it finely and letting it melt into the dish. You wouldn’t want to eat a big spoonful of dried basil or down a shot of pure vanilla extract, but either of those things can be great when added to a recipe. Anchovies, by the way, are an ingredient in many brands of Worcestershire sauce, one of the things which give that sauce its umami. (Check the label if you don’t believe me.)
Anyway, Marmite is supposed to be marginally friendlier than Vegemite, but it, too, is meant to be enjoyed in very small quantities – spread thinly on bread.
I can’t wait for my Marmite to arrive some time next month. I actually think I may like it, especially spread thinly on bread. I tend to like flavors like soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, and I like salty things more than average.