My mother was the best cook I’ve ever known. Really. The chicken soup that she made for holidays was legendary. There was a problem, though. Every time I had that soup, I would get a raging headache, my face would turn bright red, and my jaw would clench. I didn’t correlate this with her “secret” ingredient, monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer that causes those symptoms in some people (1). This constellation of symptoms has also been labeled “Chinese restaurant syndrome” because of the large amount of MSG that was (and maybe still is) used in some Chinese restaurants. I thought my troubles were caused by the stress of a holiday with a slightly crazy family. But now I know better. I mean, my family is, indeed, slightly crazy — but that MSG was the problem.
MSG is a potent member of a group of chemicals called glutamates that give certain foods the property known as umami. Along, with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, umami is a taste category perhaps best described as savory. It adds an incredible amount of flavor. What’s more, umani increases the sense of fullness and decreases the desire for added salt (2). The good news is that there are many umami-rich foods that contain glutamates that are not MSG and that do not cause MSG-associated symptoms. Seaweed, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, and fermented foods such as miso and soy products are particularly rich in umami. Other umami-rich foods include tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, cured meats (the reason we all love bacon so much, alas), shellfish and fish sauce. For several of these foods, notably tomatoes and mushrooms, cooking them increases the umami effect.
Combining umami-rich foods exponentially increases their intensity, resulting in what has been called “umami bombs.” Here’s a recipe for one that I think, if I may brag a bit, is phenomenal. Let me know if you agree.
“Umami Bomb” roasted portabella mushrooms
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1-2 tsp miso (any color you like)
- 1 tsp fish sauce (optional)
- 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 large portabella mushrooms, stems removed
- Italian parsley, minced
- 1-2 tsp parmesan cheese, freshly grated (optional)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp paper towel, and cut off the stems.
- In a baking dish, mix the olive oil, soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic. Place mushroom caps upside down in the marinade, and marinate 15-60 minutes.
- Transfer the dish to the preheated oven. Bake 20-30 minutes until the mushrooms are kind of soft, flipping the mushrooms about halfway through.
- As you can see in the photo, I served the mushrooms (with the sauce) on steamed kale, but you can also cut up the cooked mushrooms and mix them with grains or rice or in a salad, or eat them as “burgers.”
- Grilling is another way to cook the mushrooms. Ten minutes at high heat might be enough.
- Plan on at least one mushroom per person (but no Jewish woman in her right mind would plan for just one per person).
I've got to tell you, these are really delicious. Try them!
(1) Baad-Hansen L et al. Effect of systemic monosodium glutamate (MSG) on headache and pericranial muscle sensitivity Cephalalgia 2010; 30(1):68-76.
(2) Masic, U; Yeomans, M. R. Umami flavor enhances appetite but also increases satiety. Am J Clin Nutr 2014; 100(2):532–8.