Reminder from teen daughter: Savor the taste of umami

Farm Forum

“Mom, what is it called when two things go together really well?” my 15-year-old daughter asked.

“Like fleas on a dog?” my 10-year-old offered with a giggle.

“No, I was talking about food,” my older daughter said as she rolled her eyes at her little sister.

“How about peanut butter and jelly?” my 10-year-old exclaimed as she cited one of her personal favorite food combinations.

“I mean steak and mushrooms,” my older daughter said as she implored me to quiet her sister. She also grabbed a sample of the mushrooms I was sautéing on the stove.

“I think you are looking for the word ‘umami.’ That is the fifth taste and is considered separate from sweet, sour, salty and bitter. We get this delicious flavor sensation when we combine certain foods,” I replied.

My older daughter nodded her head. The sautéed mushrooms were a side dish to go with steak on the grill. My younger daughter was not impressed with the mushrooms.

The word umami was coined more than 100 years ago by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at a Tokyo university. Umami, which means “delicious” in Japanese, also is known as the “savory” or “meaty” sensation.

You can achieve the umami sensation when you combine foods that contain a combination of glutamate (a protein-building block) with molecules called inosinates and guanylates. Although the natural chemical compounds I listed may make this sound kind of complicated, chances are you already partake in “umami” on a regular basis.

If you like ketchup on your burger, you are experiencing umami. If you like Parmesan cheese on your spaghetti sauce with meatballs, you are experiencing umami. How about soy sauce on your cabbage and meat-filled egg rolls? Yes, that’s umami.

Dairy foods such as aged cheese, protein foods such as seafood, beef, pork and chicken, and plant foods such as tomatoes, seaweed, mushrooms, soybeans, cabbage, peas, corn and carrots offer one or more of the umami compounds. Fermented foods such as soy sauce and fully ripe foods, such as a bright red tomato, are high in the umami compounds.

If you combine foods containing the umami compounds, the resulting flavor is more intense than the food’s flavor by itself.

Most of us have favorite foods that often relate to the flavor of the food. Our sense of taste was considered a protective mechanism for our ancestors, according to anthropologists. The meaty, umami taste was considered “life-giving.” Bitter flavors were associated with poisonous substances, and sour tastes were sometimes associated with poisons, so these foods probably were avoided. Sweet and salty foods were usually safe to eat.

As I finished sautéing the mushrooms that day, my husband brought in the steak from the grill. I thought about other combinations of ingredients that provide flavor sensations that will lead to lasting memories for my family.

This high-umami recipe that features steak, tomatoes and feta cheese is courtesy of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association at

Greek-seasoned Steaks With Cucumber and Tomato Salad

2 beef T-bone or porterhouse steaks, cut in 1-inch-thick pieces (about 2 pounds of steak)

1 medium lemon

1 Tbsp. Greek seasoning

1 medium cucumber, cut lengthwise in half, then crosswise into thin slices (2 c.)

2 c. halved grape tomatoes

1/3 c. crumbled feta cheese

Salt and pepper

Grate lemon peel and squeeze 1 tablespoon of juice from lemon. Combine Greek seasoning and lemon peel. Reserve 2 teaspoons of the mixture for the salad. Press remaining mixture evenly onto beef steaks. Place steaks on grid over medium, ash-covered coals. Grill, covered, 11 to 16 minutes (over medium heat on preheated gas grill, 15 to 19 minutes) for medium rare (145 F) to medium (160 F) doneness, turning occasionally. Meanwhile, combine reserved 2 teaspoons of seasoning mixture, lemon juice, cucumber, tomatoes and cheese in medium bowl, stirring to combine. Season with salt and pepper as desired. Remove bones; carve steaks into slices. Season with salt as desired. Serve beef with cucumber and tomato salad.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 256 calories, 12 grams (g) of fat, 5 g of carbohydrate, 31 g of protein and 219 milligrams of sodium.