Feature

Good glutamate

G Magazine

As a new vegetarian, Richard Cornish is adjusting to find his coveted and craved for ‘umami’ flavours in new ways.

Good glutamate

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It took me a lifetime but I gave up meat. And seafood for good measure. I had already dramatically cut down
on my flesh intake over the past decade or so, limiting it to special-occasion meals, but there was something about it that I just couldn’t give up. It was almost an addiction. It was the flavour – the way it made my mouth feel.

Half a year without meat has meant I have had to do my research. It turns out that the flavour I was craving in meat was savoury or, as the Japanese describe it, ‘umami’. This relates to the way our tongue detects amino acids, which are the building blocks for protein, and essential for our wellbeing. These compounds are namely glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. It is important to note that naturally occurring glutamate is an essential amino acid and not the same as synthesised monosodium glutamate.

Cured ham, for example, has about 337 mg per 100 g of naturally occurring glutamate, which is one of the reasons so many people find it so yummy. Tomatoes, however, contain 246 mg per 100 g, potatoes 102 mg, cabbage 100 mg and carrots 33 mg. So when I make a soup with all these vegetables in even quantities, I am making a healthy, low-salt and low-fat food that contains 481 g per 100 g of the tasty amino acid glutamate.

If I also add a little aged hard cheese such as pecorino, which contains around 1000 mg per 100 g, the glutamate levels get even higher. Although parmesan cheese is one of the most umami-rich foods in the Western world, with levels getting up around 1600 mg per 100 g, many vegetarians eschew it because, by definition, parmesan has to be made using animal rennet.

Head to the Eastern Hemisphere and dried kelp, called kombu in Japan, can reach more than 3000 mg of glutamate per 100 g. Even nori, the processed seaweed used for sushi rolls, has a mouth-watering 1300 mg of glutamate and 9 mg of the very tasty inosinate. With this in mind, I have changed the way I cook. One big change was the creation of nori salt. I take sheets of nori, available from the supermarket, toast them for 10 minutes in a low oven, then crumble a few sheets into a food processor and whiz them up with a few tablespoons of sea salt. Sprinkled over steamed green vegetables, it makes them taste even yummier, and I’m using less salt. Nori salt is also good with salads made with legumes and whole grains.

Another change I have made is to layer umami-rich vegetables such as asparagus, avocado and mushrooms in raw salads, with a soy sauce and citrus dressing. With these you get that umami hit. Delicious and decadent dishes include cauliflower cheese (the addition of a vego stock cube to the sauce is a revelation) and potatoes cooked in a sauce of onions, garlic and tomatoes. If you’re still hungry for umami after that, have a cup of good quality Japanese green tea, containing about 450 mg of glutamate per 100 g. Enjoy!