Friday, May 1, 2015

In Search of Umami

by Sheila Connolly

Recently I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s book Cooked. It’s one of those books that’s easy to pick up and put down after reading a few pages, so I’m not rushing through it. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of his books, he’s immensely entertaining, well-informed, and curious about a lot of things, including food. And he really loves food: the history, the making, the meaning, and the eating.

The book is divided into sections. The first is Fire (how humans started cooking food with heat, which does all sorts of great things for the food and how we digest it). The second is Water, or how people cook with liquid. And that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. Still to come: Air (baking) and Earth (fermentation). In the Water section, Pollan talks about umami.

For those of us who grew up believing that there were four flavor senses on our tongue (salty, sweet, sour and bitter), surprise! Scientists have confirmed a fifth one, which has its own receptors not only on our tongues but in our stomachs. We’ve all been enjoying it all our lives, but we didn’t know it. Its main characteristic is that it balances flavors (it may also make you drool and make your tongue feel fuzzy).

The sensation is based primarily on glutamate, which is present in soy and mushrooms and tomatoes and a lot of other things. And MSG (aka monosodium glutamate, or to us older folk, Accent, which my mother used liberally), no surprise. I love Pollan’s characterization of umami/glutamate: it italicizes food. It has no flavor of its own, but it makes everything else taste better.

I asked my husband (a scientist!) if he’d ever heard of umami, and he looked blank.

I developed a sudden craving for umami. If there are umami cookbooks, I don’t know about them. I looked at my fridge and my pantry. Hmm, a nice slow-cooked pork roast (a tribute to Pollan’s first section!). I had scallions (Pollan also talks about the significant contributions of the onion family in that first section). I had soy sauce.

And I had a weird package of dried something Chinese called “Black Fungus,” also known as Cloud Ear Fungus. When our daughter lived with us, she would bring home all sorts of exotic food products, many of which are still sitting on a shelf waiting for me to figure out what to do with them. This was one of those. It is widely used in all sorts of Asian cooking even outside of China, in Japan, Hawaii, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. It is reputed to possess anticoagulant properties, and may reduce cholesterol. How could I go wrong?

The instructions were in Chinese, except for about three lines of English that were not very helpful (1. Soak and wash the black fungus clean with cold water. 2. Cook the black fungus throughly (sic) with 100 deg C boiled water. 3. Stir-fry or stew the black fungus as per personal preferences.). But I figured, what the heck?

When I was last at the market, I also realized that I’d never cooked with soba (buckwheat) noodles. Since I was venturing into uncharted territory for this recipe, I decided that they were going into this dish too.

So here is the result: my multi-national mishmash in search of umami.

In Search of Umami

1 lb. cooked pork shredded (you can chop it finer if you insist, but the shreds work well for texture)
4-5 scallions, cut into 1/2” lengths
1 clove garlic, mashed or minced
Neutral cooking oil (not olive oil)

1 package dried black fungus (if you can’t find this, you can used any dried mushroom. You might find dried wood-ear in your market, which is similar in texture to the fungus.), soaked in boiling water and drained (you can save the soaking water, strained, if you want to add more liquid to your dish). Note: as a newbie, I made the whole package. These things expand! I’ve still got half of the rehydrated fungi in my fridge, waiting for…I don’t know what.

Dry black fungus

Soaked black fungus

Chopped black fungus

1/4 cup soy sauce
Salt to taste (depending on how salty your soy sauce is)

1 lb soba (buckwheat) noodles

Rehydrate your fungi (wow, I never expected to say that!), then drain and slice into ribbons or chop coarsely.

In a broad pan or wok, add a bit of oil and briefly sauté the green onion and garlic over medium heat (do not brown). Toss in the pork and fungi. Add the soy sauce and toss, then heat through (you can add more soy sauce, or some of the fungus liquid, if the mixture seems too dry).

Prepare the noodles according to the package directions. (My package said, basically, boil for 4 minutes and drain.) Put a serving of noodles in a bowl and spoon the meat-fungus mixture over them, along with some of the liquid.

Quick and easy. The fungus has a nice crunch, even after cooking, and there’s a good blend of savory flavors—including umami!

And introducing... Defending the Dead, the third book in the Relatively Dead paranormal romance series.

Abby Kimball is slowly adjusting to her recently discovered ability to see the dead, but none of the harmless sightings she’s experienced so far could have prepared her for the startling apparition of a centuries-old courtroom scene—where she locks eyes with a wicked and gleeful accuser. Suddenly thrown back more than three hundred years, Abby realizes she’s been plunged into a mystery that has fascinated people throughout American history: the Salem witch trials.

With her boyfriend Ned at her side, Abby digs into the history of the events, researching the people and possible causes of that terrible time and her own connection to them—all the while going more deeply into her connection to Ned, both extrasensory and romantic.

As Abby witnesses more fragments from the events in Salem and struggles with the question of how such a nightmare could have come about, she’s suddenly confronted with a pressing personal question: Were one or more of her ancestors among the accused?

 Available in most e-formats, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes.


  1. Well done! You were quite adventuresome and brave here with tasty results.
    Looks like you have created a winner.

    I think I might add a bit of sugar snap peas for more color and a touch of fresh ginger for it's "snap".

  2. Fun post, Sheila, and an adventurous recipe! (Libby, great suggestions, too.) I first learned about umami via my research into (of all things) coffee. Tasters use a colorful vocabulary in attempting to describe the many flavor notes in premium beans--and, yes, umami is one of them. FYI, for further reading, an interesting book dedicated to umami is titled exactly that and subtitled Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste. The author is Ole G. Mouritsen, a professor of molecular biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark (a bibliochef suggestion).