In a recent New York Times article, wellness reporter Tara Parker-Pope explored the challenges of going vegan. Those challenges—including knowledge about how to prepare vegan foods and finding support—are real, although not nearly as insurmountable as Ms. Parker-Pope would have us think.
In particular, she focused on the taste and experience of familiar foods, saying “Giving up favorite foods is never easy, food scientists say, for it means overriding taste preferences imprinted on the brain during a lifetime of eating.”
No doubt that’s true, but I’m not sure that we have to override those taste preferences. I wonder if the people interviewed in this article have ever had Isa Moskowitz’s Mac and Shews. The genius of this recipe is that Isa uses sauerkraut to achieve the aged/fermented essence of cheese. And because of that—and perhaps the reason I am so in love with this dish—it’s packed with umami.
Understanding umami might help meat-eaters who struggle with a transition to vegan meals. The word is derived from the Japanese term for “deliciousness.” It’s been dubbed the “fifth taste” (the other four being sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). Discovered over 100 years ago, umami has more recently become a respectable area of research.
The taste/experience of umami is imparted by high levels of the amino acid glutamate. While certain vegetables have umami, it’s especially abundant in protein-rich animal foods. Foods that are very high in umami include aged cheeses—especially Parmesan cheese, which has a very high content of free glutamate—and also anchovies and fish sauce.
One theory about the appeal of umami is that, because breast milk is high in glutamate, we might develop a lifelong desire for this taste beginning within hours of birth. Another is that we evolved to favor umami-rich foods because they delivered all-important—and sometimes scarce—protein. (While that might not serve us well in a world ruled by McRib sandwiches and 20-ounce porterhouse steaks, once upon a time it was probably an advantage.)
Regardless of the reason for this taste preference, it’s important to recognize that a penchant for meat and cheese may be innate or due to early experience. It’s about taste. And research consistently shows that taste is the primary driver behind food choices.
But that’s not as dismal for vegan diets as it sounds, because we can add umami to vegan recipes. In her cookbook World Vegan Feast, author Bryanna Clark Grogan notes that “Umami elements can add a powerhouse of flavors in meatless dishes, where it supplies the robust element that meat or poultry often give non-vegan dishes.” Chef Robin Asbell also talks about umami in her cookbook Big Vegan. She says that animal foods “concentrate all sorts of chemicals into complex constructs” so that “cooks can fall back on the fats, amino acids, and browned sugars from a piece of beef to flavor a whole dish.” But, she says that we vegans can “layer flavors and use plant-based chemistry to give the palate well-rounded flavors and sensations.”
Bryanna and Robin both give suggestions for adding umami to vegan meals. Fermented foods have umami, so wine, tamari and miso are good additions to dishes. Ripe tomatoes are loaded with umami and so is ketchup. (If you know someone who has the annoying habit of putting ketchup on everything, it turns out that he or she is an umami trendsetter).
Dried sea vegetables, marmite, nutritional yeast, mushrooms, olives, balsamic vinegar, dried mushrooms, and sauerkraut are other umami-rich vegan foods. Roasting, caramelizing, browning and grilling all boost umami because they free glutamate from proteins.
People who falter on vegan diets because they find themselves craving protein could very well be craving umami—and they might feel like something isn’t quite right without it. Interestingly, some research suggests that a subset of the population may be impervious to umami. Rice and beans versus grilled chicken? It’s all the same to them. And maybe these people have an easier time going vegan (which could also mean that they have less patience with those who struggle with giving up animal foods).
In the vegan community, there is a pervasive belief that animal foods are “addictive.” Along with the idea that you’ll “detox” when you go vegan, this suggests that adopting a vegan diet is some horrible ordeal, akin to spending a month in rehab. Instead, I think the fact that a preference for animal foods is probably more about taste than anything else is good news. Adding umami-boosting ingredients to foods can be an easy way to help people find what they think is missing in vegan diets.
Edited to add: Several comments below have suggested other good sources of umami and I’ll add them here: Umeboshi plums, umeboshi vinegar, beer, sun-dried tomatoes, and MSG–which was developed over a century ago by the scientist who identified umami