My Yiddishe Umami

How the "fifth taste" of Japanese cooking has flavored the Jewish culinary world.

Jewish Week Online Columnist
Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)
Photo Galleria: 

It seems like everywhere you look in the food world these days, chefs and diners alike have the same buzzword on their tongues: umami. Known as the “fifth taste”—in addition to bitter, sour, salty and sweet, that is — umami (a Japanese portmanteau of the words “delicious” and “taste”) refers to that rich, savory flavor we taste in foods like cured meats and cheeses, mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, and in fermented products such as soy sauce and sauerkraut.

Although the famous French chef and gourmand Auguste Escoffier experimented with umami-rich dishes as early as the late 1800s, the flavor didn’t have a name until 1908, when it was scientifically identified by a professor at the Tokyo Imperial University.

Umami has been known in Japan and throughout Asia for decades, but the concept was slow to reach American shores, hitting in full force in 2010 when food-world trend-watchers declared it the year of umami. The timing makes sense: as Americans become more open to embracing the bold, funky flavors found in aged, fermented products like dry-aged steaks and stinky cheeses, as well as pickled products from around the world such as Korean kimchi, they’re embracing umami by default. Like bacon and cupcakes, the umami trend latched on and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

But the question for Jewish food lovers is this: does the trend show up in our favorite dishes? How are Jewish chefs taking advantage of umami? Is the wide, wonderful world of Jewish cooking tuned into the big food trends, or do certain eating restrictions like kashrut sometimes make an island of Jewish cuisine?

In this series, I’ll be examining wider-world food trends and speaking with Jewish cooking experts to find out where those trends show up in Jewish food.

For this first installment, I spoke with Leah Koenig , author of the Hadassah Everyday Cookbook  and of the forthcoming Modern Jewish Cooking. She said that regardless of its status as a trend, umami is truly intrinsic to Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine.

“I think umami is a very good fit for Jewish cuisine,” Koenig said. “The Jewish canon has a lot of those flavors: think about schmaltz, mushroom barley soup, cholent,” she said, referring to the long-simmering Shabbat stew that calls for meat, beans, and barley, and, sometimes, umami-rich beer. “It’s almost like it’s inherent to Jewish cuisine,” she said. “How onions caramelized in schmaltz for classic chopped liver? You can’t get more umami than that.”

Koenig said that Modern Jewish-style restaurants have incorporated pumped-up umami dishes, such as a charcuterie platter, “schmaltzed” fried corn and schmaltz-toasted challah at New York’s Mile End Deli. And at Pardes, a French-inspired, New American bistro in downtown Brooklyn, chef Moshe Wendell serves up a variety of smoked and preserved meats, such as herbes de Provence beef jerky with olive dip; lamb shoulder confit wrapped in eggplant; and smoked lamb tongue served with “charred, cured and grated lamb heart.”

As for the wider world of food trends, Koenig said that the kosher Jewish community is increasingly eager to adapt to food trends, even when those trends conflict with the laws of kashrut.

“The bacon thing is pretty played-out by now, but the kosher world really, really wanted to be a part of it,” Koenig said. “You saw beef bacon, turkey bacon. You are definitely seeing people trying to update the traditional foods.”

Koenig noted that although the kosher community seems increasingly open to new ways of cooking, food trends often arrive there at a lag behind the general public.

“I would say kosher food is about 15-20 years behind modern food, in terms of the trends,” she said. “We’re just starting to see artisanal kosher cheese, for example, and it’s still very limited.”

Stay tuned for the next installment, when I explore how another food trend affects Jewish cuisine. For now, please enjoy the following recipe: my umami-enhanced take on classic chopped liver, pumped up with a savory fried mushroom topping.

Lauren Rothman was born, raised and still resides in Brooklyn, New York. Her fondest food memories are of Passovers spent at her Grandma Laura’s table, slurping the best chicken noodle soup with knaydelach and unraveling stuffed cabbage to eat just the filling, please. You can read more of her work on Serious Eats and follow her on Twitter @Lochina186.

Extra-Umami Chopped Liver

Ingredients: 
6 tbsp schmaltz, divided (or substitute vegetable oil)
3 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced into thin half-moons
1 lb chicken livers, cleaned of any fat or sinew
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup dry sherry or vermouth
2 (12-oz.) packages button mushrooms, wiped clean and very finely sliced
1 baguette, thinly sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
Recipe Steps: 
Preheat oven to 400°. Heat 3 tbsp. schmaltz in large, heavy-bottomed skillet set over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until deeply caramelized, about 35 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper and push onions to one side of skillet.
Season chicken livers with salt and pepper. Increase heat to high and add livers to skillet, turning once and cooking until livers are just cooked through, about 2 minutes per side (do not overcook). Add sherry to pan and cook, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until alcohol dissipates, about 2 minutes.
Transfer skillet contents to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a standard blade and pulse 1-2 times to chop liver and onions. Do not over-process. Wipe skillet clean.
Prepare crostini: lay out baguette slices on a large baking sheet, sprinkle with olive oil and season lightly with salt. Bake until crostini are golden brown and crisp, 8-10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely.
While crostini bake, prepare mushroom topping: heat 3 tbsp. schmaltz in skillet set over high heat. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until deeply caramelized, 15-20 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
When crostini have cooled, top each with about 1 tbsp. liver and 1 tsp. mushrooms. Lay out crostini on a platter and sprinkle with parsley; serve immediately.