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Umami and the Italian Nonna

What's a Japanese word doing in an Italian food blog? Because it's something every Italian nonna knows about when it comes to adding flavor to dishes. And if you don't know what umami is, you will. It's one of the hottest subjects in the cooking world right now.

We all know there are four tastes - salty, sweet, sour and bitter. But researchers have identified a fifth taste and that is umami - the rich, savory taste of some foods. This taste is found naturally in certain foods - very ripe tomatoes, anchovies, parmesan cheese and mushrooms to name a few. It's why fish sauce and soy sauce make fried rice so savory.  Cooks have known for ages that these foods enhance the taste of savory dishes. It's because these foods naturally contain glutamate. It is why MSG (monosodium glutamate) makes foods taste better. If you like the way adding a chicken or beef bouillion cube (which has MSG in it) enhances the flavor of a sauce or a stew, why not try adding a food that naturally contains glutamate? It's why Italian cooks often add an anchovy in the beginning when cooking a sauce. Even if you don't like the taste of anchovies, you will never know it is there. It completely dissolves but it adds a depth of flavor you would not have otherwise.  Don't say, "Ew!  I don't like anchovies!"  Take advantage of the glutamate in this food and enhance your cooking - your umami!

Umami means "delicious" in Japanese.  The Japanese, by the way, use MSG extensively.  MSG was undeservedly blamed for a number of side effects by people and fell out of favor in the United States.  It is widely used in other countries, though.  In 1995 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a large-scale review by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, clearing glutamates as a health risk.  Even Marion Nestle,  author of the recent best seller "What to Eat" and this country's leading nutrition and food safety expert, says MSG was stuck with the stigma of being bad for you.  “There was simply no clinical evidence for any of it,” she said.  She did not even mention MSG in her book.  “I thought the issue was settled, though I know a lot of people will never believe that,” she said.



And if you think you're not eating any MSG, think again.  The food industry has simply used variations of it with different names.  If you are eating processed foods, you're probably eating some MSG.  That bowl of Ramen your teenager loves so much tastes so good because of the MSG.  Look at the food labels - if you see these words - "yeast extracts, hydrolyzed proteins, antolyzed yeast, whey protein concentrates, " - you are basically eating a variant of MSG.  The food industry will be adding these ingredients more and more to foods. In their effort to offer lower sodium foods to consumers, like soups, they will make up for the flavor loss by putting in some form of MSG.   Some people will always be worried about MSG, even if there is no evidence that it's bad for you.  If you are, stick to whole foods, not processed foods.  Know which foods contain glutamate and use them in your cooking to boost your umami.



Spaghetti with Anchovies, Capers and Bread Crumbs


This recipe uses what Italians call "the poor man's parmesan cheese" - fried bread crumbs. It's actually a really delicious topping to put on pasta.  This pasta sauce takes a mere 5 minutes to make!


 for bread crumbs:

  • some crustless bread (can be stale), pulsed into crumbs in food processor
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large pinches of kosher salt

Take about a cup of the bread crumbs and fry in the olive oil until crispy and turning rosy. Add salt. Set aside.

for spaghetti:

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 3 anchovy fillets*
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 heaping Tablespoon capers, rinsed
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • lemon zest
  • 8 oz. thin spaghetti



While you make sauce, cook the spaghetti until just al dente.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and add anchovy fillets. Heat them gently and stir with spatula until they dissolve.

Add garlic and heat gently for about two minutes. Do not let it burn.

Add half the parsley, all the capers and cook for one minute. Add the cooked spaghetti to the skillet and toss, coating with the sauce. If a little dry, add a few tablespoons of the pasta water. Add the rest of the parsley, the bread crumbs and lemon zest and toss again. Serve hot.

* Use good anchovies if you can find them. I can find Scalia anchovies in most good gourmet grocery stores.


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Reader Comments (13)

That truely looks delicious, I'd love to spin my fork around this!

June 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterProud Italian Cook

Wow- this looks fantastic! I wonder how it tastes though?

June 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commentergschurr

Pasta made this way is an absolutely a favorite of mine and those bread crumbs are a must. Just a great combination.... YUMMO!

June 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLucy

This is my kind of dish!!

June 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAran

The pasta looks great. By the way, I wanted to say how much I'm loving this blog!

July 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTim

The person I usually eat with hates pasta as a side dish, but I can serve a small portion as a starter, and he's fine with that.

This looks like it would be a perfect starter before roast leg of lamb. Lamb and anchovies seem to have a real affinity for each other.

I'm definitely going to try this.

Great site. And your oil paintings are glorious!

October 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

MSG is TOXIC at levels created by man. It was heavily lobbied by the food industry and the studies were all funded and flawed to show MSG to be safe. There is a reason wht it has a bad reputation.

April 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Umami is not a flavoring at all. Like nicotene, caffine, and other addictive substances it fools the brain into thinking the taste is good, and causes someone to eat more and crave that food.

April 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

My mother is from calabria and makes a dish some what close to this. She adds the oil and anchovies together cooks them for a few minutes then adds the bread crumbs and walnuts cooks them until there browned. Then she tosses it with the spagehtti. We have this dish every Christmas Eve. Thanks for your Blog.

September 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLori

This is going to be dinner tonight, but absolutely hate recipes that don't tell how many people they are for.

October 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLary

BTW, according to the Vogue food critic who did a lengthy article on MSG and umami, there is only one study on MSG and that proved that no effects could be documented. The control that got no MSG actually had more symptoms than those who did. MSG is a lab-made version of something that occurs in nature, which is why it works. It's like saying you'll chew on willow branches for your headaches, but won't take those aspirin because a corporation made them. That said, you don't need MSG, just use all the vegetables and cheeses mentioned above and chill out a bit.

October 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLary

Altthough I have always loved your blog.

The comment on MSG are concerning. MSG that is created naturally in foods is fine. I am not totally opposed to it. But I tend to feel the author you reference is irresponsible stating there is no evidence msg is bad for you. We had a son who suffered a concession. When we actively cut MSG out of our diets as much as humanly possible the severe headaches his months of suffering lessen. As advised by our neuro. MSG in America is in everything u eat even my sons favorite goldfish crackers. Of course the food industry is guilty of calling MSG by other names.

We enjoy adding anchovies to our salad dressing and pastas as little bit of anchovies go a long away to adding flavor in dishes. Sorry I am senative to the MSG comment but will be a forever fan of your blog which I read weekly.

February 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLisa T

Correlation, as they say, is not causation. The Vogue author is not irresponsible, he is accurate. There is no evidence. I'm sorry about your son's concussion and sequelae, but if MSG were causing the headaches, then presumably he would be getting headaches from the anchovies that you do eat or tomatoes or mushrooms, etc, etc.
The Vogue author (you really should read the article) cites someone speculating on how a large sodium-laden meal when one is dry might be the cause of symptoms. This whole kerfuffel was started when a Chinese-American physician went to his favorite Chines restaurant for lunch and got some mild symptoms. He speculated in a letter to JAMA that it might be MSG.So, speculation, not scientific evidence.
And, for the record, there is no naturally occurring MSG only naturally occurring glutamates.

February 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLary

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