Anybody and everybody who has ever watched the Cooking Channel has heard the word “Savoury’ used thousands of times. For most of us, a savoury dish simply implies one which is not sweet. But is this definition adequate? Not quite, which is why I’ll delve a little deeper into this gastronomical conundrum?
The term savoury has been associated with the Japanese term “Umami” According to the Japanese; we experience 5 basic tastes; Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, and Umami. Umami in essence describes a culinary sensation in which salivation along with the stimulation of the throat and mouth is achieved. According to the Umami Information Center, umami is “a pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamates”. Glutamine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in meat, fish, vegetables, mushrooms, and dairy products. Glutamic acid also contains metallic salts, which impart a familiar and highly desirable flavour to food. In fact umami is a more natural, less concentrated version of the infamous industrially produced monosodium glutamate (MSG).
So to define the actual flavour of umami is difficult because the taste itself is almost indiscernible. Umami may best be described as a flavour enhancer, rounding out and amplifying various ingredients.
How is umami produced?
In Asia, Umami is commonly achieved through the fermentation of fish, beans, and grains. Fermentation helps extracts amino acids rich in glutamates. This explains why a little soy sauce, a squeeze of sriracha, or a drop of fermented fish sauce makes an Asian dish to explode with flavour.
The Italians nailed down umami centuries ago. Think of a slow cooked and decadent meat based tomato sauce paired with aged parmesan cheese. Just imagining it is stimulating. The meat, tomatoes and fermented cheese are all rich in glutamate, making the combination irresistible.
As a general rule of thumb, umami + umami = gastronomical awesomeness. Umami is why a cheese burger with ketchup is mouth-watering. But not just mouth-watering, umami draws us to food in an almost primal way.
Let’s be clear, umami on natural, high quality and organic ingredients is awesome. MSG on cheap unhealthy food is an aberration.
So what is savoury? Let’s just say it’s the combination of glutamate rich ingredients paired together creating culinary heaven.