February 25, 2011

Umami Eggs

Pardon me for a moment while I nerd off a bit... Have you heard about this "umami" that's sweeping the foodie world?  (Sorry, I promise not to say foodie again.  I don't know about you, but the word makes me cringe.)  At any rate, people are throwing "umami" around and it's actually all for a very good reason.  Umami is one of the five basic tastes.  The mysterious "they" added it on to the list with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter a couple decades ago at a symposium dedicated solely to the understanding of this taste.  The Japanese have been touting it for much longer, and it basically means "savory."

Umami was actually discovered in the early 20th century to be associated with glutamate and a couple ribonucleotides. [For those of you who didn't have to memorize the amino acids or their codons, you may not have find association of this "savory and delicious" ingredient with the codon "guanine-adenosine-guanine" as ironic as I do.  I'm giggling like crazy over here at the hilarity of a nucleic acid sequence that spells GAG but makes things taste amazing.]  Anyway, it turns out that the combination of glutamate and these specific ribonucleotides (GMP and IMP) is even more powerful than either alone.  The receptor for "umami" flavor has binding sites for both types of molecules.  There's a synergistic effect that's based on the cooperative binding of glutamate and a ribonucleotide to adjacent spots on the adorably named 'Venus flytrap region' of the umami receptor.

You may have heard of glutamate when you decided to figure out what MSG was and why it was so essential to making Chinese take-out boxes impossible to put down before they were empty.  Monosodium glutamate is a food additive that utilizes the long-understood power of umami, and luckily for all of us who ate too many bags of Japanese trail mix and OD'ed on MSG, you can find glutamate, and umami, in a number of other places besides MSG.  It's in soy sauce, seaweed, marrow, aged and fermented foods, Marmite, cheese, and plenty of vegetables and even fruits (tomatoes, for example).  Why does this matter?  Why do we have to pick apart the very molecules that make our food taste good instead of just eating and enjoying? Well, umami is a good concept to understand to help with healthier and more diverse cooking.  Adding an ingredient that contributes umami to a dish can lessen the need for fats and salt without sacrificing satisfying flavor.  Remember that synergistic effect?  Adding parmesan to tomato sauce accomplishes that double-whammy of flavor because parmesan has loads of glutamate and tomatoes have lots of the important ribonucleotides. And using an umami-full ingredient while omitting meat can help make a meal that carnivores and vegetarians both enjoy.  

This easy preparation for hard-boiled eggs is a great start to appreciating umami.  The soy sauce and furikake add umami, and the sriracha adds a little kick.  It is quite possibly the best way I've ever eaten eggs.  (Didn't hurt that these were eggs from the chickens that cluck gently all day in our neighbors' back yard.)  I think if you added these eggs to a bowl of brown rice with a little vegetable broth it would be a great breakfast or lunch.  Eaten with some sauteed gai lan a few days later at work, they were still delicious.  Please try this, and if you don't have it in your cupboard already, don't skip the purchase of furikake- it's crucial to this dish, and I'm sure you'll find all kinds of new ways to use it once you have it around.

Umami eggs
4 eggs
soy sauce
sriracha (or other hot sauce)

Add the eggs to a pot and cover completely with water.  Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let sit for 10-12 minutes.  Cool and peel, then cut in half.  Put a tiny dash of soy sauce on each yolk, then a dab of sriracha, then sprinkle with furikake.  Devour.

Note- This is the brand of furikake we use, but you can find it at Asian stores and Whole Foods from other companies and in other varieties.  We picked one without MSG, but the more I researched umami, the more I realized that we don't really have a lot of evidence to back up the anecdotal MSG-bashing I've grown up hearing....

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