My name is Robin, and I am a spice addict. The evidence: these two full drawers of my kitchen that are dedicated entirely to spices. I have been known to stock up on enormous-size containers of my favorites, like cumin and Mexican oregano, pick up half a suitcase full of new blends while traveling, or make special trips to ethnic markets just to pick up a spice I might use in a single recipe. So when Simply Organic, a brand available in most of our local grocery stores, came out with a new Umami Blends spice, I was all in.
Umami—which roughly translates to “deliciousness” in Japanese, is the elusive fifth taste (the others are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). It’s a challenge to describe, though food critics have tried for years, labeling everything from deep to dark, meaty, and pungent. It’s more subtle than the other four tastes, and, at least to my palate, contains components of sour, salty, and bitter.Distinctively earthy and lip-smacking, umami adds layers of complexity to a dish.
Umami in its purest form is contained in monosodium glutamate, or MSG. This common food additive took a beating in the 1960s through the 1980s, largely due to both racism and a poorly researched letter to the editor (not a study) in the New England Journal of Medicine, which kicked off a hate campaign against Asian restaurants that made liberal use of it. Even though subsequent testing has proven that most people, even those who believe they have an allergy or sensitivity, don’t have a reaction to MSG when they don’t know it’s in their food, most people still shy away from it.
Simply Organic isn’t taking any chances, and their new Umami Blends spice does not contain MSG. According to the label for the Sweet & Smoky blend, the one I tried, its ingredients include mushroom, cane sugar, maple syrup, sea salt, smoked paprika, black pepper, and rice concentrate, most of them organic. It boasts a beautiful reddish-brown color, a fluffy texture, and a distinctive earthy, savory aroma that hits the nose as soon as you open the container
I tried Umami Blends a few different ways, and liked each of them. Sprinkled over a warm ear of fresh sweet corn, the spice tempers the sweetness of the vegetable with an earthy, slightly tangy taste. I also added it to the batter for flower cakes (fried zucchini flowers, a typical Italian street food), where it lent an unexpectedly perky taste to one of my all-time favorite recipes.
Finally, I added it to some mayonnaise, in an attempt to approximate Kewpie mayo, the gold standard of condiments. A household staple in Japan, Kewpie mayo is known to American audiences mostly as the sauce drizzled over certain types of sushi and nori rolls. It’s so delicious that I, only a casual mayonnaise user, would actually eat it off a spoon if left to my own devices. The real thing is expensive on these shores—often running $1 or more per ounce—so I wanted to see if adding a little Umami Blends to my own homemade mayo would give me the same flavor.
It took some playing around to achieve the right balance, but Umami Blends gives me a decent approximation of Kewpie mayo. It worked nicely on both okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake, and on tofu banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich with pickled vegetables.
I’ll be using this spice a lot, and may even try its sister umami blends, Original and Roasted Garlic & Herbs. Simply Organic Umami Blends cost $7.99 for a slightly-less-than-3-ounce jar, which might seem pricey, but you only need a few dashes to get the flavor. If you’ve been wanting to add more umami to your menu, it’s a great place to start.