What did we ever do before the discovery of umami–that mellifluous etymological Japanese import–which describes the deep savoriness of taste? Before 1908, when scientist Kikunae Ikeda make the connection between taste and glutamic acid, we made due with only the adjectives sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Afterward, it was better eating through chemistry, at least in North America, where Madison Avenue gave us the vocabulary of deliciousness in our food.
To wit: When I was about six, I remember my Uncle Joe bursting into my grandparents’ apartment, where a large chunk of the family was gathered, and instructing all of us to thrust out our palms. This was the early ’60s in a small town years before Woodstock; no one thought twice when he urged us to ingest the little crystalline pile of white powder he tapped into our hands. It tasted a bit salty, a bit oomphy–meaning it had bass notes but they really didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere.
“This is going to make me a bundle!” he said.
My father, always skeptical of all my uncles’ get-rich schemes, asked, “What is it?”
“Monosodium glutamate,” Uncle Joe said. “They call it MSG for short.”
And with that, for a brief, glorious run in the late ’60s, he and his brother, Uncle Tony, sprinkled the food additive, a salt chemically derived from umami’s powerhouse glutamic acid, to just about everything in their food emporium franchise, “Tex Barry Coney Island Hot Dogs.” (Tex Barry was the racing name of yet another brother, my godfather Altino, who was a stock car racing hero in Seekonk, MA.) The family later sold the shops, but if you happen to be in Attleboro or Taunton, MA, you can still drop in.
Since those heady (and headache-y) days of MSG, we’ve come a long way as an eatocracy, and fell for umami by romancing the foods in which it naturally occurs: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, porcini mushrooms, anchovies, and tomatoes, to name a few. But the oh-so-clever Laura Santtini, author of the new book Easy Tasty Italian (which, along with her cunning recipes, you’ll find on LC) has gone a step further–a step my uncles could have never imagined, and created a umami paste. Made from these very same ingredients naturally rippling with umami, Taste No. 5 Umami Paste can be squeezed into pastas, soups, and stews; slathered on fish and meats; and tossed with vegetables. I put it to the test by squeezing a few inches into a homemade tomato sauce, beef stew, and soup. It definitely gave a good one-two punch to the flavors, rounding and deepening them. It’s the perfect thing to have–and hide from the prying eyes of guests–if you want the cooking advantage in your clack of culinistas. My only gripe is the tubes are only 2.46 ounces; mine was gone in a week. At least the cost (about $6) offsets how much you’ll be tempted to use it. My prediction: Saavy cooks will reach for Taste No. 5 Umami Paste as often as they do salt and pepper.