Explorations in Umami—The Savory Taste

Anchovies - Umami Savory Taste

My daughter’s first step was to reach a strawberry held at her eye level 2 feet away. We clapped enthusiastically as she reached her goal. The word “more” was among her first words, accompanied by pointing at the artichoke heart soaked in melted butter on my plate after she had gobbled her own. I refused, perhaps the first rejection of her life. Her daycare teacher, British-born and proper, asked about the strange food packed in her daily lunch bag, commenting that she sometimes sniffed garlic when she bent to hug her. The foods: hummus and baba ghanoush, along with other “exotic” food. She ate anchovies straight and gobbled pickles of varying kinds long before most adults encounter those foods.

She had no choice in being introduced to foods that spanned the full range of flavors. Despite still resorting to boxed macaroni and cheese for comfort, she has become a creative and inventive cook.

Before writing this issue’s column, knowing the overall theme for the fall is “risk,” I started asking people what qualified as risk regarding food.

The answers were somewhat predictable: foods from unfamiliar cultures, so-called “weird” foods such as insects and animals’ eyes, too much hot spice or other ingredients that hindered digestion. One person mentioned prices on a menu as a risk for a tight budget.

Recently, I have thought about the risk of not knowing how to eat a particular food in settings where it is assumed you know what to do. Foods in this category include whole artichokes, fish with bones, fresh oysters, large crustaceans. It’s a subject that elicits funny and occasionally poignant stories.

The realm of “foods I don’t know how to use and think I dislike” seemed worth exploring. Thus, I chose two foods that can add to your cooking palate with surprisingly rewarding results.

Most people can reel off the original four elements of taste our tongues detect—sweet, bitter, salty and sour. Together, they combine to give the nuanced flavors to what we eat. For the past several decades what’s considered the fifth taste—umami—has become familiar to most cooks. Umami is the Japanese word that translates as “pleasant, savory taste.” English attempts at translation include “savoriness” and “yum.”

Umami is associated with meat, mushrooms, soy sauce and other ingredients that lay down a base note for other flavors to harmonize with.

Two easy ways to experiment with umami are anchovies and miso. Once you’ve begun to use them in the following recipes and suggestions, you will see why good cooks always have their umami at hand!


Miso is a fermented paste made with soybeans and rice or barley that provides a direct hit of umami to many dishes. Start with white miso, mildest of the pastes—there is also yellow and red—and you will be surprised at what it adds to marinades, salad dressings, bastes and sauces.

Here’s some ways to incorporate miso into other flavors or bases:

2-3 tbsp. miso plus:

Sweet element: brown sugar, maple syrup, palm sugar, marmalade

Sour element: rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar, lemon, lime or orange juice

Spices and herbs: ginger, cilantro, garlic, lemon or lime zest

This is a version of the famous miso glaze for black cod used by Nobu Matsuhisa, a legendary New York chef and restaurateur. It is easy and superb on other fish as well as steamed or roasted vegetables, chicken, or tofu.

Maple Miso Glazed Black Cod

8 ounces black cod fillet, halved

2 tbsp. white miso paste

1 tbsp. pure maple syrup

1 tsp. rice vinegar

1 tbsp. sherry, sake, or orange juice

1 tsp. fresh grated ginger (or 1/4 t powder)

Pinch red pepper flakes


Slice the fish into two equal pieces. Pat dry and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk the remaining ingredients until smooth. Add the fillets and turn to coat. Place the glazed fillets on a small baking sheet, skin side down.

Broil on high 7-8 minutes.

(Serves 2)

(You can marinate the fish for as little as half an hour or up to 24 hours. The longer you leave it, the deeper the flavors.)

Miso Salad Dressing

This is a basic miso-based salad dressing to toss with lots of things (consider shredded cabbage or bok choi—raw, it’s crunchy and fresh—carrots or fennel. Add cut up apples or pears, sprinkle with nuts and sesame seeds, and you’ll have an easy Asian-inspired salad.

1 tbsp. light soy sauce

1 tbsp. rice wine

1 tbsp. cider vinegar

2 tbsp. white miso

Mix until blended.

Miso-Compound Butter

Make a log of miso-compound butter to melt or spread over proteins and steamed vegetables. You can add garlic or chives, and lemon juice or zest.

4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) room temperature butter

2 tbsp. miso (white or yellow)

Ground pepper

Optional add-ins: Chopped scallions or chives, minced or crushed garlic, crushed fresh ginger or chili, citrus juices or citrus zest.

Cream butter and miso, adding other ingredients as you wish.

Use immediately or roll into a log in plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze to cut into slices for later use. Melt onto fish, chicken or steak (lots of umami), asparagus, broccoli or carrots, or a baked potato or sweet potato.


Many people have strong feelings about anchovies—you either love them, or you hate them. While they refuse them in Caesar salads and on pizza, feeling confident that they won’t show up anywhere else, they might be wrong to discover how many ways they have enjoyed their benefit without knowing it!

Anchovy Primer

Canned in oil: Most canned anchovies are imported. Prices differ, and you’ll get a lot of flavor and use from one small tin.

Bottled in olive oil: Often Italian, you can see them standing tall in their little jars.

Boquerones: These white, fresh anchovies are pickled in vinegar and oil and usually need refrigeration. They are milder in flavor and terrific on an antipasto spread.

Anchovy paste: Packaged in tubes, this is the no-fuss way to get a hit of anchovy in salad dressings, sauces, or compound butters.

Asian fish sauce: Fish sauces use fermented anchovies as a base. A few drops in salad dressing will be transformative and nobody will know what you’ve done.

The recipes below honor the Mediterranean roots of this ancient ingredient:

Pasta with Garlic, Anchovies, Capers and Red Pepper

½pound spaghetti


3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

4 anchovy filets, rinsed and roughly chopped

1 tbsp. capers, rinsed and roughly chopped

½ tsp. red pepper flakes, or to taste

2 tbsp. chopped parsley, optional

Grated parmesan cheese, optional

Put the spaghetti in a large pot of well-salted rapidly boiling water and cook only until al dente. (Depending on the brand of pasta, this will be 8 to 10 minutes, but check frequently.)

While the pasta is cooking, warm the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute, without letting it brown. Stir in the anchovies, capers and red pepper and cook for 30 seconds more, then turn off the heat.

Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Pour in the garlic mixture, add parsley, if using, and toss well to coat. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

(Serves 2)

Fast Tomato Sauce with Anchovies

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp. minced garlic

4 to 6 anchovy fillets, with some of their oil

128-ounce can tomatoes, crushed or chopped, and drained of their juice

Salt and fresh-ground black pepper

Put the olive oil in a deep skillet and turn the heat to medium. A minute later, add the garlic and the anchovies, and stir. When the garlic sizzles and the anchovies break up, add the tomatoes.

Turn heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture becomes saucy, about 15 minutes.

Enough for 1 pound of pasta, or about 4 servings.

I would also use this as topping for pizza, an addition to anything wanting a deep tomato taste.

Pissaladière (for cheaters)

If you have ever been in the South of France, you likely recall this pizza-like tart that comes out of ovens right before lunch. Here’s an easy way to make your own:

Start with a sturdy dough (focaccia, pizza dough, or a thick layer of puff pastry)

Spread thick layer of caramelized onions  A pinch of fresh thyme and rosemary adds to the flavor profile.

Arrange anchovies on top so they are distributed evenly enough so that each piece—square or wedge—has its share.

Distribute black olives among the anchovies.

Drizzle good olive oil over everything.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes until dough is brown and top is bubbling.

Optional additions: Roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, or fresh tomatoes.

Before Rebecca Crichton worked for Boeing, taught leadership development, or became executive director of the Northwest Center for Creative Aging, she was a caterer, recipe developer, and food journalist. She has taught cooking to seniors and others and can reel off food ideas and recipes for any part of a meal or event. She believes in easily prepared, healthy, and taste-filled food that delights and satisfies.

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