• This vegetarian pho uses Vegemite in its broth. (Georgia McDermott)Source: Georgia McDermott
You’ll find it in fermented fish sauce, sun-dried tomatoes and a jar of Vegemite. Yep, we’re talking about umami, the 'fifth taste' known for bringing ‘deliciousness’ to dishes around the world. Here are some of the top combos to give your tastebuds a tingle.
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22 Aug 2018 - 11:42 AM  UPDATED 9 Feb 2021 - 10:48 AM

--- For more umami hits tune into In Search of Umami, as chef Robert Allison travels to South Korea (where his umami adventures include a kim chi making session with his Korean-born mother), Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia, Sundays 6pm 7 February-14 March on SBS Food. Episodes will also be available via SBS On Demand after they air. ---

 

Taking its name from the Japanese word for ‘delicious’, umami is the indiscernible element that gives food ‘wow factor’.  Known for its rich, almost meaty intensity, the so-called fifth taste – technically glutamic acid – can be found in meats, seafood, aged cheeses and certain vegetables. It’s the secret to homemade stocks, and the reason we find a sauced-up sausage roll so darn satisfying.

What’s umami all about?
The so-called ‘fifth taste’ isn’t some highfalutin culinary term or Asian-only flavour. Far from it. Umami can be found in foods all over the world, from pasta puttanesca to a jar of Vegemite.

Chef Robert Allison, host of In Search of Umami, a show all about this deliciousness, calls "the fifth dimension of taste". His travels across Asia in the show see the Korean-English chef dive into the making and eating of everything from doenjang and fermented shrimp to salted eggs. 

There's plenty of umami to be had in your own kitchen, though. 

For an extensive list of foods umami-rich foods, check out the Umami Information Centre. (Yes, it’s really a thing.) The site is an encyclopedia of all things glutamic acid, including an illustrated “umami around the world” map that’s cute and interesting in equal parts. While tomato is one of the most commonly used umami enhancers, a great number of fermented, dried and salted ingredients also do the trick. From Ghanaian shito (smoked fish sauce) and Polish sausages to Russian herrings and Korean doenjang (soybean paste), it seems that umami is loved the world over – whether we know it or not. 

Here are eight ways to quell your umami cravings.  


 

1. Dashi

Kikunae Ikeda discovered the fifth taste thanks to experimenting with dashi, so it seems only fitting that this stock base makes an appearance. Making your own is surprisingly simple. Adam Liaw’s recipe calls for kombu, cold water and bonito flakes, and will be ready in 25 minutes flat.

Scallops with seaweed butter
 

2. Tomatoes and anchovies

Pasta lovers will be pleased to know that the pillars of a good puttanesca (tomatoes and anchovies) are rich in glutamic acid. This gluten-free version pairs the ingredients with spiralised zucchini and a welcome chilli hit.

 

3. Fish sauce and shrimp paste

Pungent pickled fish condiments are packed with umami. Naturally, this Thai pawpaw salad (tum mahk hoong) one seriously delicious dish.

 

4. Parmesan, pickled mushrooms and salumi

No wonder the Mediterranean diet has so many converts. Aside from being healthy, it’s crazy tasty, too.  This antipasti plate prepared by Tama O Carey includes pickled mushrooms (umami tick), Parmesan custard (tick) and a healthy spread of cured meats (tick). 

 

5. Shellfish and seaweed

All seafood contains a certain level of umami, but the shelled variety is particularly blessed. Seaweed, too, is brimming with tongue-tingling glutamates. Pairing barbecued prawns, nori strips and a drizzle of dashi butter, this recipe is basically the holy umami trinity.

Barbecue shrimp with dashi butter and nori will take you 15 minutes to make.
 

6. Kimchi

"Umami, to me, is an emotional thing. It's something that comforts and helps. Food is so evocative," says chef Robert Allison, reflecting on the experience of making kimchi with his mother in Busan in South Korea, during his travels for In Search of Umami. "Growing up in England, my mum never really taught me how to cook Korean food because when she left Korea in the 1980s, it was deemed a very odd thing for man to cook ... so I never actually learn to make kimchi," he explains. Kimchi pops up several times in the show - after all, it's an excellent example of different techniques create this unique taste element. "The more mature an ingredient is, the more umami there will be. One way to achieve this is through fermentation where enzymes are given the time to break down the tissues and free up all those glutamates within," Allison explains. 

Give it a go in a traditional Korean kimchi, a quick wombok and radish kimchi, or change up the vegetables with carrot kimchi or cucumber kimchi.

7. Miso butterscotch sundae

We can thank Christina Tosi for concocting this sweet, salty, umami butterscotch-like spread. It only takes a few minutes and this (intentionally) burnt miso sauce is superb next time you reach for the ice-cream scoop.

8. The ultimate soy sauce

Umami hunter Adam Liaw shares his saucy wisdom with this “boosted soy sauce” recipe. No, it’s not some salty protein shake, but rather a soy sauce infused with sake, mirin, shiitake and bonito flakes.

And like a fine wine… this bottle only improves with age! 

 

PLUS - an Aussie umami bonus:

Aussie beef pies

This is the quintessential Australian beef pie, flavoured with beer and Vegemite. If you like your pies a little chunky and more rustic, use chuck steak; if you prefer them more like the ones you get at the footy, use minced beef.

Vegemite adventures
Manakish three ways

Man'oushe (singular to the plural manakish) is a popular Levantine flatbread topped with anything from za'atar to ground meat, or Hoda's Australianised version with Vegemite and cheese. They are typically enjoyed for breakfast or lunch.

Vegemite cheesy scrolls

The Vegemite cheesy scroll is to an Aussie kid what the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is to an American kid. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has grown up in Australia who didn’t have it weekly, in their lunchbox or after school. 

Vegetarian pho

Pho made with Vegemite might sound slightly terrifying, but the spread we know and love actually provides the perfect salty base for a delicious, albeit not-your-average pho broth. #BringBackTheClassics

 

Umami at home
Kelp-cured blue mackerel with fennel salad

The kelp adds a subtle umami note that brings out the sweetness of the mackerel. Food Safari Water

South Indian curry of mullet

The flesh of the mullet has a deep sweetness but with the intense umami character traditionally associated with lobster or crab.

Barbecue shrimp with dashi butter and nori

The addition of instant dashi in the butter and nori flakes as a garnish gives a distinct Japanese flavour to this easy shrimp dish.

Pawpaw salad (tum mahk hoong)

Tum mahk hoong is a famous Lao recipe. Everyone likes it. Normally, if you go to a Lao household for breakfast, lunch or dinner, one of the dishes will be pawpaw salad.