My friends and I do a food-related Secret Santa every year and this year we’ve been assigned tastes. I got what I consider to be the hardest of all: umami. I know that umami is savory and earthy, but what kind of a gift can I give for that? Do you have any ideas?
A quick primer for the unitiated: known as the “fifth taste,” umami is actually the presence of the amino acid glutamate in a dish, and is found in foods with a rich and savory mouthfeel: meats, mushrooms, anchovies, fermented things like soy sauce or fish sauce, rich broths and stocks, and aged cheese (those little crystallized bits in your Gruyere are actually amino acids!).
Though it occurs naturally, the food industry has been using the processed version, monosodium glutamate (yeah, that’s MSG) to up that luxurious, full flavor in your foods or the last century. Happy 100th anniversary, Chinese takeout headache!
Now, about your gift—since ramen is an umami bomb, why not give a gift certificate to an authentic noodle joint in your city? Here in New York, Ippudo and Setagaya set the gold standard, and there are no shortage of bloggers ready to debate their relative merits. A high-end Japanese meal would fit the bill as well, since uni, shrimp, dashi broth, and lobster are also umami-rich ingredients. If your giftee happens to be in Los Angeles, I might not be able to resist sending her to Umami Burger, whose signature patty is topped with cheese, roasted tomatoes, and mushrooms.
Looking for something larger than a gift card? Pack a basket for a trip through the umami-packed Mediterranean with cheeses like an authentic Parmigiano Reggiano or an Istara, a tin of luxurious anchovies, a jar of sun-dried tomatoes, and some jamon serrano. I’m getting thirsty just thinking about it.
Finally—and how close are you to this friend, exactly?—depending on the Secret Santa budget, you could also splurge on one intense truffle or a chunk of foie gras. And then invite yourself over for dinner.
Reminder: your questions are the gifts that keep on giving for your fellow readers! Ask Casey returns in January and I need more fodder for the new year. Send your q’s, catering requests, and invitations to warm, exotic destinations to caseyATgoodfoodstories.com. Now, on with the show.