Fifth sense - FamilyEducation

Fifth sense

February 18,2011

I've been reading a lot lately about umami, one of the five senses. The term "umami" comes from the Japanese term meaning "savory taste." There are many different perspectives on how to satisfy that fifth taste--most people seem to agree that umami is about a satisfying earthiness; a roundness to the taste of the food--neither bitter, nor salty, nor sweet, but an in-between taste. There are many foods that satisfy our need and craving for the umami taste (our desire for umami in food comes from our craving for glutamate, since most foods considered to appeal to umami contain glutamate): broths made from meat, sardines, heavy tomato sauces, cheese, mushrooms, olives.

It may be simple as a meat-eater, and even as a vegetarian, to satisfy the umami urge, but it's more challenging if you follow a vegan diet. On the day/sweeks when we have lots of good food in the house, and evenings are unrushed, I am able to satisfy the cravings I have for those rich, earthy tastes--the ones that your tongue almost curls around; the ones that make you feel content and full inside . Olive spreads, guacamole, bean pastes, hummus, fried tofu, lentil dishes with hearty dashes of balsamic all seem to do the trick for me. But during weeks like this past one, when we're rushing home after 5:00, stress levels are high, and nerves and schedules are frayed, and we've had breakfast-for-dinner so many times that it's lost its appeal, I find myself feeling run-down, and craving "quick fixes" to satisfy the umami urge. Last night, for instance, it was all I could do to stop myself from eating a big tablespoon of T.'s Annie's Shells and Cheese (the other option for a quick there's-no-time-to-make-dinner night for T.: a box of mac 'n cheese and sliced up cucumbers and carrots for a side "salad"). Would it have been the end of the world if I HAD taken a bite? Of course not, but I also knew that I'd had a long day, and all I had eaten had been a small, not very satisfying lunch at 11:30 that morning. I was starving, and not well-nourished, tired and and craving the mac and cheese was a quick fix for me. Instead, I whipped up a quick batch of those avocado smoothies and a tall glass of one of those, coupled with beans and toast and sliced tomatoes for dinner (we're scraping the bottom of  the battle around here--grocery shopping today!) filled the void and satisfied my needs--for the moment, that is. 

Here are my top "umami" vegan-friendly foods:

Tamari (fermented soy sauce--heartier than the regular kind)

Mirin (great to add to stir-fry sauces)

Miso (good for you and very satisfying when added to a base in soups)

Tempeh. I love tempeh. I didn't always, but years ago when I was studying at the University of Binghamton in New York, one of the eateries in the student union used to make the most amazing tempeh burger with a side of salty, perfectly-fried French Fries. I was sold, and from then on have loved tempeh. I often slice it up, saute it a bit, and toss in a dark green salad (shredded kale or spinach leaves) with a sesame dressing. Umami crave satisfied almost instantly!

Avocado. I love avocados. Obviously you can make an awesome smoothie with them, but they are also good sliced up and served on the side. Sprinkle the avocado chunks with a dash of chile power, squeeze a lemon or lime, add some coarse salt and mash with a fork. This is a wonderful way to make a quick spread to add to a healthy sandwich.

Bean paste. All you need to make a paste from any canned bean is a potato masher, some lemon or tahini and your imagination. I like to smash up chickpeas, mix in a couple of spoons of tahini, some lemon juice and salt and I have a quick and easy and very satisfying sandwich spread. You can make a mini meal out of this sandwich if you use ciabatta bread and top the bean spread with tomatoes, lettuce or other veggies.

Tofu. Tofu always satisfies me. You can add it into lasagne, or cut it up into cubes and lightly fry. Maybe frying it isn't the healthiest alternative, but when I'm really craving those "round" meaty umami textures, eating a plate of fried tofu dipped into a rich tamari sauce (squeeze lemon into the tamari, too, for an even better taste experience).

Peanut butter. I love peanut butter--the chunkier, the saltier and the more natural (filled with all those wonderful pieces of real peanuts) the better. A good way to combine some of my favorite umami foods is to make a batch of sesame noodles (my recipe is at the bottom of the post) and toss in some fried tofu cubes.

I finally will have some time this afternoon to head to the store. You can bet I'll be satisfying my cravings for a lot of those foods over the weekend!


Happy weekend to all--here's to a better, smoother, stress-free week next week!