Umami, is a much-talked about taste these days. Thanks to the Japanese, we’d say, let’s wait and talk about Umami for a moment; because while it was the last taste perception to be discovered, it actually plays a key role in a dish. Umami is present in some form in all foods. Umami is Japanese for ‘pleasant savoury taste’.
Described as a pleasant ‘brothy’ or ‘meaty’ taste that has a long-lasting effect of, causing the mouth to water and the tongue to feel coated in a pleasant manner. Umami balances taste and rounds out the overall flavour of a dish. Foods rich in umami have existed since ancient times. Garum, fermented fish sauces from ancient Rome, Murri, fermented barley sauces from medieval Byzantine, the fermented fish and soy sauces of South-East Asia, bonito flakes, kombu seaweed and shiitake mushrooms of Japan are all examples. Naturally occurring glutamates are found in many foods although food additive mono sodium glutamate (MSG) is best associated with umami.
Now, umami never features on our taste checklist in India, subconsciously it has always existed. We have been sending umami signals to our brain forever. Traditionally, Indian food gets its umami in two ways. The first is from ingredients such as green peas, raw jack fruit, gucchi or dried morels, sweet potatoes, walnuts, lotus root, poppy seeds, sesame oil, ginger and coriander seeds together are big sources of umami as well. The other source of umami in Indian food comes from two processes we use regularly, like fermentation (of Kanji, breads like hoppers and Goan sannas) The cuisines of the North East are full of umami rich foods).
The process of ‘Bhunao’ is another one that triggers umami. The typical Indian process of caramelising our onions and garlic lends umami to our food. The North East is umami galore with brilliant fermented dishes coming out of the kitchens. While umami is definitely addictive and novel, it is not alien at all. It’s a taste that has always existed and is being defined now.