Welcome to the third installment of Food Questions, where I investigate food-related subjects to satisfy my curiosity. Check out my previous posts on Catherine de’Medici and the history of arroz con gandules and Jollof rice.
Biting into a mature cheddar that crumbles into jagged shards, giving way to the irresistable firm cheese. Tiny white pinpoints tucked between the large firm curds tightly crunch, releasing that characteristic sharp flavor.
The tastebuds deep on both sides of my tongue tingle and light up, making my mouth water. A throb of pleasure radiates from my gums to the base of my spine. The shudder of furry pleasure is nothing short of orgasmic.
Nestle a morsel of that cheese into the pillowy crumb of a fresh baguette, and that rich texture with the tight crispness of the brown crust… This is one of my very favorite bites of food. The definition of deliciousness.
That sharp cheddar cheese is so damn good because it tastes salty and umami.
Umami is the mysterious fifth flavor, after salty, bitter, sweet, and sour. I remember hearing the news in 2001 that American researchers confirmed that we DO indeed have the ability to taste a fifth flavor–something the Japanese had first established nearly 100 years earlier. I was a teenage girl with food eternally on the mind, and was curious about this flavor. Through my clunky understanding of it, I got the impression that it was a just a “deeper” version of salty.
Today’s food question dives into the specifics of umami.
What exactly is umami?
Dipping crispy-fried potato wedges into tomato ketchup
Shaving a soft mound of Parmesan cheese over steaming, screamingly hot freshly drained pasta
Dabbing (or bathing, for some) your sushi in a dish of soy sauce
Adding salty anchovy fillets that dissolve into your rich puttanesca sauce
Using dashi stock (either bought powdered, or simmered from bonito flakes and kombu kelp) to give your miso soup the backbone of its heartiness and warmth
…If you’ve ever enjoyed any of these taste sensations, you have tasted umami. It is the umami flavor that gives these dishes their depth and richness of flavor, and what makes them so luscious and satisfying.
A dish without umami is one that makes you tilt your head and think “There’s something missing.”
Umami is a flavor that is not recognizable enough to know which ingredients contain it, but one that is sorely missed when absent.
The discovery of this flavor is credited to Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda after realizing the seaweed in his miso soup was the key ingredient to its tastiness.
Ikeda called this flavor “umami;””umai” is yummy/tasty; adding the noun ending “-mi” makes “umami” loosely translate to yumminess/tastiness.
This flavor is a bit slippery to describe, but it’s often called meaty, brothy, savory, and rich. Ingredients with umami are special add-ins that create an explosion of flavor.
It’s found in aged foods, like cured meats, fermented products, and ripe (often stinky) cheese. It’s also present in fresh foods like ripe tomatoes, milk, mushrooms, and even breast milk!
It’s the amino acid glutamate that’s responsible for this yumminess.
Umami can be created through using umami-rich ingredients, or by using heat to brown your food. This is called the Maillard reaction: when an ingredient is heated under the right conditions, carbohydrate molecules react with amino acids, which break down and produce a browning effect, giving birth to complex, meaty aromas. Imagine the difference in flavor between a sad, floppy boiled chicken breast and a juicy piece of meat carved from a crisp, roasted whole chicken.
Here are some more umami-rich ingredients, grouped into various cuisines sorted by country:
Glutamate came to be isolated from proteins in wheat gluten, distilling it into its purest form, called “aji no moto”–the stuff of flavor. It quickly came into commercial production in Japan and was sold as a flavor enhancer, much like salt and sugar.
Nowadays it’s mass-produced by growing bacteria that excrete the substance into liquid, from which MSG powder is produced.
Some of you may be skeptical about using MSG powder in your food. But as for the purported negative side effects of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (sweats, headaches, upset tummy, increased heart rate), research doesn’t seem to back it up.
That said, I never use it. While cooking, I have a distaste for relying too much on salt, sugar, or MSG–it feels like I’m cheating, grabbing an easy fix to make up for flavor I failed to cultivate during the cooking process.
I’m more in favor of coaxing in umami flavor on my own terms: browning meat bones, using mushrooms, roasting tomatoes, grating Parmesan into my risotto, using fish sauce in my seaweed soup…
So, the next time you’re scratching your head in the kitchen, thinking your dish isn’t quite right, resist the urge to grab for salt. If you think it needs a li’l extra somethin’, pump up the umami.
This is the first post of a new series in which I investigate food-related questions that pique my interest. While I plan to conduct research to look more deeply into these subjects, I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m not a scholar, just a layperson with a sense of curiosity.
Feel free to comment with additional resources, information, or suggestions for future food questions. Here we go!
Today’s question is born from an offhand comment by Clarissa Dickson Wright (one-half of the British cooking duo, the Two Fat Ladies, who greatly shaped my curiosity and appreciation of food):
“Catherine de’ Medici, who taught the French how to cook”
Who the heck was that? Is that true?, I wondered as a young adolescent. Clarissa made the statement with such unquestionable authority (or maybe it was the British accent), I always considered there to be a kernel of truth.
Now living in France, I have the great privilege to be able to taste and investigate French gastronomy for myself. I can learn firsthand about French food tradition, so refined and richly delicious.
Of course, French cooking techniques transformed the way the Western world sees food, and it is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for a reason. That said, there is, without a doubt, there is a profound stink of arrogance and hoity-toitiness that can be off-putting. The endless fascination and reverence can be alienating to a dabbler such as myself. I’m not in a position to denigrate this grand tradition, but come on. French cuisine can come across as elitist, and there is an insufferableness with which enthusiasts genuflect before it, and sniff at “less refined” cuisines.
The idea that the culinary juggernaut of French cuisine didn’t spontaneously generate in a vacuum, dreamed up by a pompous French moustache-twirler, is sexy and intriguing. The question of Catherine de’ Medici’s influence is one that has been scratching my ear ever since I moved to France, and began to learn to appreciate the rich complexity of French food tradition.
The question that sits at the heart of my fascination, be it in in food, history, folklore, psychology, or otherwise is: What is the origin story?
Where did this achievement in human excellence and creativity stem from?
Let’s dive in.
14th-century French cuisine was known for quantity, without the same refinement and quality we associate with it today. Imagine large free-for-all banquets where people ate with their hands. How terribly unelegant. But with the beginning of the Renaissance, alongside the same ol’ innovations we all read about in history class, came another important cultural offshoot: the development of food preparation techniques.
Ah, the Renaissance. It’s difficult to talk about it without mentioning the Medici, a powerful Florentine dynasty that held a 300-year-influence that spanned through the Renaissance, and who notably financed great artists and thinkers like Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Botticelli. And like any dynasty, they married their children off to foreigners to solidify their power.
Enter Catherine. A woman whose story unfurls more and more mystery, intrigue, and drama, the deeper you dig. Married to Henry of Orléans, later King Henry II, who snubbed her in favor of an older woman, Diane of Poitiers. (That said, even if her husband wasn’t exactly thrilled by her, they still conceived ten children, nine of which she outlived. Her last remaining son, Henry III, died in the same year she did.) A woman with a deep appreciation for good food, Catherine held a fascination with the occult and astrology. Widowed into power, she was the reviled Italian-born Queen of France, quelle horreur!
23 October 1533. 14-year-old Catherine arrived in Marseilles, in a grand display of finery, with procession of horses, accompanied by twelve demoiselles, clad in silk of gold and silver. The great finery in her trousseau included a lavish collection of silk and lace, precious gemstones and opulent jewelry.
She was married to Henry of Orléans the following day, and thereby became a royal duchess. It is said that the excessive displays of decadence extended to the great banquet held after the wedding, and the masquerade ball-turned-orgy after the teenaged couple’s departure to their nuptial chambers.
Hey, they knew how to party.
Catherine’s uncle, Pope Clement VII, had brokered her marriage to Henry, promising an alliance with King Francis, along with a certain amount of land and a sizeable dowry. Unfortunately, a year after the wedding, the Pope died, having only paid part of her dowry. Effectively, his death left Catherine with no political value to King Francis I.
Not known for her looks, nor her political clout, she had to appeal to her father-in-law’s strong appetite for beauty. It’s said that she made up for her lack of looks with her charm, wit, intellect, and skills in dancing and hunting. She’s credited with bringing the side-saddle to France, supposedly to show off her well-shaped calves. She’s also said to have introduced pantaloons as undergarments, so as to preserve her modesty under a footman’s roving eye while descending from horseback.
Later, she was known for her enormous appetite for rich food–a 16th century gourmande, she was. Perhaps it was an overindulgence in artichokes and puff pastry that gave her that double chin later in life. Legend has it that when she was presented with tobacco from the New World in 1560, she crushed into a powder and found it intriguing enough to introduce to the French people. Other innovations allegedly popularized by Catherine de’ Medici include the folding fan and the handkerchief.
Overall, sources seem to be conflicted on the precise list of novelties that Catherine brought to the French. From what I’ve read, it’s safe to assume that she brought the fork with her to France and popularized its use. She also brought a team of fine Italian cooks and master pastrymakers who probably showed those French cooks a thing or two. With respect to crediting her introducing ingredients to France, such as broccoli, lettuce, and spinach, and savoy cabbages, there is more doubt.
It’s also known that along the French Riviera, individual Italian dishes crossed over, but not an entire style of cooking. The Greeks introduced the olive to Provence, and perhaps even the famed Marseillais dish, bouillabaisse.
It’s not possible to conclude that Catherine de’ Medici “taught the French how to cook,” but her influence seems to be one factor that catalyzed a push toward culinary refinement. Her arrival in France coincided with several other important revelations at the time, notably the flood of new ingredients coming in from the New World.
I’d like to think that we have Catherine de’ Medici to thank every time we crunch into spinach-and-artichoke filled puff pastry triangles at a cocktail party, sipping fine wine and hoping things pick up and get spicier. And after someone kills their fifth glass of Cab, takes their shirt off and starts howling at the full moon, we smile and remember that life is here for us to savor.
Frieda, Leonie. Catherine de Medici. Phoenix, 2003.
O’Neill, Molly. “Quel Shock! The Italianization Of French Cuisine.” NYTimes.com. Published 5 October 1994. Accessed 10/26/2017.
Oulton, Randal. “Catherine de Medici.” CooksInfo.com. Published 01 August 2005; revised 17 November 2012. Accessed 10/26/2017.
Root, Waverly. The Food of France. Vintage Books Edition, May 1992.