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from the Melting Pot of the Pacific
The Umami Way of Food and Wine Matching
Never heard of umami? Even if you haven't, you've probably always known it unconsciously. Unlike the tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter, which are detected by specific taste buds located in the tongue, umami (pronounced "oo-mah-mee") could be described as the overall reaction or feel of the palate to certain foods and beverages. It is not a textural quality (hard, soft, smooth, etc.), but rather a sense of "savory" or "delicious" qualities. A common demonstration of umami, for instance, is a pinch of MSG mixed into lukewarm water. What the palate feels is a stimulation of saliva, alerting the tactile senses; sort of a mouth-watering effect. According to the Japanese food scientist who made the first formal identification of umami in the 19th century, umami is one of the two senses (along with sweetness) that the palate perceives as pleasant. Sensations of salt, sour and bitter, on the other hand, are not so pleasant except in the context of other sensations.
One of the leading exponents of umami today happens to be a Master of Wine named Tim Hanni. According to Hanni, only umami explains the "deliciousness created by fermenting, curing and preserving" of certain foods such as a well matured Parmigiano cheese from Italy, dried shiitake mushrooms, and sweet, vine ripened tomatoes. It also explains the earthy, but highly restorative, powers of aka-miso when added to Japanese broths, the electrical, hot/sweet reaction of sambal (Southeast Asian chile paste) when added to dishes, and even the blatant appeal of eleven herbs and spices in fried chicken. Not surprisingly, it is in Asian cuisines - in which ingredients and cooking techniques are often very simple, even bland, but very strong in the sum total of palate effects - that umami plays a significant role. That is to say, more so than in American cooking, where quantity and even excess - i.e. a blood rare slab of beef, the cream and sugar in ice cream, the salty crunch of potato chips - hold more appeal than subtle balance of elements.
The significance of umami when it comes to wine is multifold. It goes a long way towards explaining why certain wines - especially more complex and mature wines - seem to naturally relate to more foods. A refined, silken, crisp yet soft, fruity yet multi-spice scented Pinot Noir, for instance, seems to do a lot more for a wood grilled salmon than a soft, fruity, but simple, one-dimensional Beaujolais made from the Gamay grape. The wider range of contrasting sensations of wines made from Pinot Noir tends to stimulate a more umami-like effect on the palate.
Some fifteen years ago I did a tasting on the possibilities of pairing Cabernet Sauvignon - the thickest, fullest and richest of California's red wine grapes - with foods. We tried salads, fish, game, beef, and even sweet/bitter chocolate desserts with a number of different Cabernet Sauvignons - young and soft Cabernets, young and hard (high tannin) Cabernets, simple Cabernets, complex Cabernets, fruity Cabernets, earthy/leathery Cabernets, and an older, well-matured Cabernet. Some Cabernet Sauvignons worked better with certain dishes than others, but the one Cabernet that seemed to work better than all the others across the board was a richly matured, smooth and suave ten year old Cabernet Sauvignon made by Silver Oak. Why? I would attribute this to the effect of umami - the mature qualities of the wine drawing out more savory sensations on the palate, and thus allowing it to embrace a broader range of food sensations.
When it comes to food preparations, the significance of umami determines many of our wine selections. A young, thick, fruity California Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, is predictably good with a simple cut of wood charred beef. But if you braise beef with a myriad of seasonings and vegetables and serve it in a complex, natural reduction, a young, thick, fruity California Cabernet ends up tasting rough, somewhat belligerent with that dish. On the other hand, an older, earthier, less fruity but gentle style of Cabernet Sauvignon from France's Bordeaux region is more likely to taste quite round and smooth in the context of braised beef. It ain't the meat, it's the motion.
Hanni himself likes to illustrate the effect of umami by citing the way a squeeze of lemon is used in a well salted bistecca alla fiorentina - beef raised and prepared in the way of Tuscany in Italy - to cut through the fat and balance the salt of the dish, and then perform a double duty of mellowing out the bitter tannins of young red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese grapes. But because we don't use lemon or have access to this type of beef in the U.S., Hanni believes that the best wine for American style preparations of beef may very well be (brace yourself!) White Zinfandel. How? Because the slight sweetness and fruity flavor of White Zinfandel are more likely to soften the impact of fat and char of wood grilled beef, thus achieving more of the flattering effect of umami.
But relax, beef and Cabernet lovers. You needn't embrace all the ramifications of umami. If you prefer your favorite brand of heavy red wine with fatty beef or lamb, or a lemony dry white wine with your fish and other white meats, the important thing is that you know what you like. Umami is, after all, more of a state of mind than an actual taste sensation; and delicious is, you can say, as delicious does.
May 5, 2000